Conference Feature: The Creation of an Elite Civil Society: Civil Society Organization Formation in Los Angeles, 1880-1900

by Simon Yamawaki Shachter, University of Chicago

On the United State’s West Coast, in the second half of the 19th century, four small towns grew into large cities: Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; and Los Angeles, California. Despite sharing similar political, economic, and demographic environments, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco developed notably pluralistic and prolific civil societies while Los Angeles’s became relatively smaller and more elite. Through a historical analysis of Los Angeles’s initial growth, I ask the question, why did Los Angeles develop the unique civil society that we still see today?

The organizational demography of these cities’ civil societies offers an initial clue. Immigrant organizations were the predominant civil society groups that had the largest memberships in all four cities as the cities began their growth. In 1880 Los Angeles, a small hamlet of 10,000 people, there were a wide variety of civil society organizations that represented its multicultural, immigrant, and religious demography. Prominent organizations included the French Benevolent Society, Turnverein Germania, the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society, Chinese mutual aid organizations, a Catholic hospital and orphanage, multiple Irish leagues, and likely the widest variety of Mexican-American organizations in the country. Immigrant organizations in the other three cities continued to dominate and loom large in political life as the towns grew into cities of hundreds of thousands of people. In contrast, Los Angeles witnessed a relative decline in immigrant organizations and a rise in elite-led business and cultural organizations, despite having a larger immigrant population than Portland and Seattle. By the end of the century almost none of the earlier-mentioned organizations can be found in Los Angeles’s historical record. Instead, the prominent groups in 1900 were business organizations led by producers and professionals, women’s clubs catering only to wealthy white women, elite universities, and white nativist societies.

I identify the real estate boom and bust of 1887-1888 as a critical juncture that redefined what it meant to be an Angeleno. In the early 1880s, many of the diverse organizations regularly participated in the city’s parades, forums, and political affairs—even the Chinese peddler union negotiated directly with the city council. Rich and poor residents of the Los Angeles community identified with their immigrant, ethnic, and religious identities first. These identities provided a legitimate basis for public claims. The boom and bust led to a population surge alongside profound distrust and economic instability. Out of its ashes the wealthy of Los Angeles constructed a new identity internally legitimized by careful and long-term real estate investment. These white property-owners who owned land both before the boom and after the crash recognized their power and shared interests. As self-titled “pioneers,” they spent the next five years creating organizations based on wealth and whiteness. These white, relatively long-time residents of various religions and ethnicities saw they had more in common with each other than with their fellow unemployed countryman or their neighboring Mexican landowner. By the end of the century, the primary legitimate public sphere organizations were those interested in upholding the race-based real estate regime.

In piecing together this history I am relying on a variety of archives and secondary sources. County and city archives keep records of incorporated organizations and the local governments’ interactions with civil society groups. Existing papers of elites and immigrants showed how they viewed the rapidly changing city and their own identity within it. Lastly, archives from the immigrant communities themselves provided a deeper and alternate perspective on how each community was organizing itself and seeking to create change. This piece is still a work in progress and as more archives open from the pandemic, the nuances and details of this history may change, but I expect the overall argument to hold. In the rest of this essay, I briefly discuss the economic and racial components of Los Angeles’s elite civil society as the town initially developed.

Real Estate and the Open Shop

Economic organization by the wealthy of Los Angeles was initially weak. No proprietor organization existed through the real estate bust, not even the first Chamber of Commerce, but several unions managed to survive. In the two years after the bust, proprietors came together to create three large organizations: the Merchants’ Association, the Manufacturer’s Association, and a new Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce quickly developed relationships with the city and county, receiving income from both governmental bodies. The Chamber was the only private organization to receive funds directly from the Los Angeles County government from 1890 to 1900. The Merchants’ Association was led by Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, the editor and owner of the Los Angeles Times, one of the major newspapers. In 1889, he started a decades-long fight with the Typographical Union—the strongest union in the city. Otis locked out union employees and brought in scabs from Kansas City. The Union engaged in a boycott of the Times and of its advertisers but was unable to conduct a successful boycott and the mere intention of it backfired, strengthening the numbers and cooperation among the Merchants’ Association’s members. By the early 1890s, the Typographical Union was weak, locked out of the largest newspaper, and unable to stage successful collective actions. The other unions in the town were even weaker, and the capitalist proprietors of Los Angeles were well-funded, motivated, and understood a new mutual interest—an open shop at all costs. This state of affairs would exist well past 1900.

After the boom and bust caused such volatility in the real estate market, the new economic regime sought to prioritize the steady accumulation and security of land values. Obtaining property was a testament of a civil society organization’s commitment to the city’s best interest. This achievement was only available to organizations with white, wealthy members. Collectively, many civil society groups, from the Historical Society of Southern California to the Auld Lang Syne club (a woman’s club), sought to comprehensively document who owned which tracts of land at which time and how they passed through generations—in a way no one did in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Gifts of land from wealthy citizens for parks, hospitals, and schools were praised high above all others for their generosity and philanthropy, especially when they were framed as increasing the value of Los Angeles real estate.

Colorblind Disenfranchisement

In its racism, the post-boom and bust Los Angeles elite developed a discourse that has more in common with today’s color-blind discourse than the contemporaneous Jim Crow South, but their policies and actions promoted a harsh economic and social segregation. Discursively the Mexican and Chinese population were ignored despite making up nearly 20% of the city population. The Mexicans who owned significant parcels of land became “proud Spaniards” (ex. landowner and former governor, Pío Pico is consistently described as a “Spaniard” despite his Afro-Mestizo heritage and appearance), while Mexicans who did not own land became “savage Indians.” Even then, these Mexican “Spaniards” saw their land gradually stolen from them through arcane legal maneuvers and outright fraud. Where this had been previously challenged by Mexican landowners’ white “Don” neighbors, it quickly became an accepted practice in the 1890s. Explicit racism against Chinese residents was rare among the elite, and far more common among workingmen. However, the discursive avoidance of the Chinese community becomes apparent in their complete absence in the historical record of the elite. Before 1888 Chinatown was regularly seen as a problem area for the city because of vice and crime, but after that point, “the Chinese problem” is rarely considered by the political establishment. While most elite employed Chinese laborers and servants, mentions of the Chinese in the elites’ many archival documents only appear in account books. The Friday Morning Club, the leading woman’s club in the city, discussed Asian cultures on a regular basis from 1891-1900. They discuss Japanese culture almost every year, talk about Thailand, India, and Korea occasionally, but never once discuss China. Similarly, the Women’s Foreign Baptist Missionary Society of Southern California sponsored home missions among the Chinese in Los Angeles and funded missionary work in China and Japan. After the bust, the home mission work and missionary work in China ceased without any note or indication as to why, while the Japanese mission continued.

Mexicans and Chinese were also subjugated economically and residentially. Economically they were paid the lowest wages and hired for seasonal work. Most laborers often had to go far outside the city and county to find work, which in the eyes of the White elite made them non-residents. Sonora Town and Chinatown were heavily circumscribed areas and the land was reduced as the populations grew until the two communities essentially merged. Housing was in poor enough condition to eventually legitimate a Congressional investigation. In a city based on land ownership, the elite guaranteed the Mexicans and Chinese would have none.

White ethnics saw a different change in their community. Ethnicity grew less important as a key identifier. The German community, the largest foreign-born White population, is a useful example. The Turnverein Germania, one of the largest voluntary organizations in the entire city in the early 1880s had fewer members in the mid-1890s despite the city tripling in size (the foreign-born German community more than tripling). It was forced to combine with the Austrian Turnverein and an additional Swiss organization. The merger happened at the same time as the opening of a new building which was welcomed the by the greater Los Angeles community, with a keynote speech by the non-German mayor. However, the actual membership in the organization had already reached its peak. Although it was an important symbol to Los Angeles, it was not one that many German residents, and fewer German elites, personally identified with. These elites identified strongly as residents of a culturally diverse city, especially when that promised greater tourism revenue, but identified less with their individual or ancestral ethnicity. The prominent German civil society organizations that were created in the 1890s were no longer standalone German organizations but were non-exclusive chapters of non-ethnic fraternal organizations. German ethnicity was becoming less of a factor in how people identified and more a history to honor. While this might be read as a classic case of assimilation, it was a far more rapid and intense process than among white ethnics in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco.

An Elite Civil Society

In the 1870s and 1880s, Los Angeles’s diverse community built a plethora of strong, politically-engaged organizations tied to their immigrant and religious heritages. At that time Los Angeles’s civil society looked no different from the other towns on the West Coast that featured vibrant civil societies centered on immigrant identity. It was not until the 1890s that Los Angeles went down a separate path. Effective, well-funded, elite organizations began to dominate the civil society landscape and build an urban regime based on land values and whiteness. Whereas the other West Coast cities continued to be sites of immigrant-organization building and failed attempts at elite consolidation, Los Angeles’s white elite managed to successfully legitimize a civil society based on race and wealth. This shift in organizational demography centered on the boom and bust of 1887-1888. This economic panic was contained within the Los Angeles region and created an existential crisis for the elite without taking away their wealth and power. This allowed the elite to consolidate, identifying a common purpose that subordinated immigrant ties to landownership.

This change in the demography of civil society occurred at a key inflection point in the city’s growth. Between 1880 and 1900 Los Angeles’s population grew by a multiple of ten! The political and cultural institutions that were flexible in 1880 became core traits of the city by 1900. While the boom and bust was a large enough impetus to push the elite to shift the legitimacy of the city’s civil society in the late 1880s, it would have had to take a much bigger shock to create any similar shift in the 20th century. Compared to the other West Coast cities, Los Angeles continued to have weaker workers’ and women’s movements at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, Los Angeles still has less than half the nonprofits per capita, and has consistently suffered from a relative lack of representation and legitimacy for its poorer residents and non-white racial and ethnic groups. Today, Los Angeles continues to be known for the control of business and corporate leaders in its politics and civil society.

This history indicates the importance of early changes in cities’ civil society in altering the legitimacy and voice of different communities in and outside of city politics. Other West Coast cities went through their own shifts in their early years across different dimensions of difference that have set them on separate paths of development that are still visible today. However, none of them took the path that Los Angeles did, one that created a decidedly elite civil society.

Acknowledgements: This research was sponsored in part by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles’s (NHMLA) Student Collections Award. The author gratefully acknowledges the staff of NHMLA’s Seaver Center for Western Research, the Huntington Library, the Ethnic Studies and Bancroft Libraries at UC Berkeley, the Los Angeles Public Library, and Special Collections at Loyola Marymount University, as well as the spirited volunteers of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, particularly Eugene Moy.

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