1 Commonly known only by its initials, LA-officially, the City of Los Angeles-boasts more than a dozen well-known nicknames, among them the City of Angels and Shangri-LA, after the mythical paradise of Hinduism. Indeed it would perhaps be impossible to know how many other ways there are of referring to Los Angeles or how many languages are spoken within its city limits. However, the sheer fact that LA goes by so many names reflects its rich and complex history and its often conflicted social and economic development. Glimpses of its early history, when the grounds for its later diversity and growth were laid, are particularly fascinating.
2 Though the City of Los Angeles as we know it was only formally incorporated in 1850, human settlement in the area dates back to 3000 BCE, when the enormous floodplain now known as the Los Angeles Basin was populated by native peoples, including a group called the Tongve. Cut by the Los Angeles river and ringed by the Transverse Mountains, the floodplain provided an ideal environment for agriculture and the development of economies based on farming and trade. Two tribes in particular-now called the Gabrielinos and the Fernandinos, following the names given them by Spanish colonists-established small but thriving towns that represent the first so-to-speak urban developments in LA.
3 In the 17th and 18th century, explorers from Spain and other European countries arrived in California; native peoples were both suppressed by and aided the new arrivals as they attempted to make their region into a second, Europeanized homeland. As was the case with many European settlements, the Fernandinos and especially the Gabrielinos provided crucial assistance to colonists, advising them as they planted their crops. The two groups, natives and colonists, also experienced significant racial mixing. The missions, the streets laid by Spanish farmers and business owners as the town grew: these were the foundations of what would become the brightest city in the country, lit by spotlights and movie marquees. Indeed, in an almost beautiful coincidence, the same generous sunshine that made the region ideal for agriculture in 3000 BCE attracted movie producers to Los Angeles in the early 1900s because it was the cheapest way to develop film before the invention of electric light.
4 After an intervening century of development, an incredibly diverse population of 3.8 million now calls Los Angeles home. Hispanic communities comprising both immigrants from Central and South America and descendants of colonists and native peoples-as well as transplants from other parts of the United States-cluster around the center of the city and extend all the way to the sea. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the city attracted a thriving black population, since the southern and eastern portions of the United States offered fewer jobs and more pronounced forms of post-abolitionist racism. Chinese immigrants arrived in Southern California in the late 19th century; though Japanese Americans were interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they still represent a portion of the city's Asian population. Koreatown, near the heart of Los Angeles, is the wealthiest and densest Korean community outside of Korea, North or South. Moreover-and for good or for ill-all these communities share breathing room with astronomically wealthy celebrities.
5 One might say that Los Angeles represents the demographic future of the United States as a whole. Beyond its social makeup, the city certainly represents a vast and lively portion not only of the United States but of North America and the world. Some residents of and visitors to the city contend that it is a city without a memory, where the importance of local knowledge and culture has been erased by international wealth. Billions and billions of dollars are spent and made in the film, music and television industries in Los Angeles every day, but the real richness of the city lies in its people and its past. That history has never been peaceful, precisely-nor is it possible to retrieve the lives of the untold numbers of people who have made the region their home for more than five thousand years-but they have all contributed to its beauty, history, and growth.