How crime and corruption built modern Los Angeles
LA’s sunshine, stars, and glamour are just part of the picture. From the 1920s to the 1950s, it was a place defined by shady underworld characters and police corruption. Jim Heimann takes a look at the darker side of a city that was not always so full of angels
LOS ANGELES. Its name alone stirs visions of romance and adventure: Hollywood, sunshine, beaches, and endless rows of orange trees. This glowing and glossy image that was offered to the world by city boosters and the chamber of commerce was produced in an endless cycle, the slick promotional propaganda spewing forth for more than a century. Meanwhile, bubbling below the surface of the public relations campaign lurked another side of the City of Angels.
The underbelly of Los Angeles was festering like oranges rotting in the perpetual sun.
Primary to the city’s image were its commercial and newspaper photographers, who, in the years that framed its intense development, captured a precise portrait of a city in the process of inventing itself. Photographs from the 1920s through to the 1950s show a changing landscape of altered streets, levelled hills, and buildings constructed and then eliminated to accommodate even more change.
The photos also detail the nightclubs and bars, the buried bodies, the lifeless forms on coroners’ slabs, Hollywood celebrities, politicians, boulevard degenerates, and self-proclaimed saviours of the soul. These images expose both the bright and the dark sides of a city absorbed in the present and looking toward the future. They document a city in constant change, rapidly evolving from adobe squalor to the ‘Wonder City of the West’. Photographers could make the town look good and bad. The glamour shots helped bring thousands of new residents to the Southland.
Promotional imagery of mountains, sun and surf promised a better life and unlimited possibilities, but newspaper and tabloid photos showed newcomers that the seductive vision wasn’t the whole story. The flip-side of paradise was a different Southland, one where dope rings, petty criminals, sensational murders, prostitutes, bullet-riddled bodies, and a notoriously corrupt police force flourished. It was the other Los Angeles – a city awash with corruption and sin. The posed and the candid. The good and the bad. A city to aspire to and a city to revile. Both versions were responsible for creating the mythic City of Angels. The photos and stories told of a town on the backslide, documented in black and white and furnishing the reality behind the writers’ fiction.
The LA that most of the early noir writers found was unlike any place they had known. There was the physical beauty of the mountains, the coast, and the agricultural plains within earshot of slums and urban grime. A polyglot of races walked the sidewalks. The architecture was bizarre, borrowed, or modern beyond a Midwesterner’s imagination. There was Filmland – imagined and real. Hollywood and Vine, mansions, movie premieres, and nightspots.
Almost from its start, Los Angeles had a reputation as a hellhole. In the mid-1800s the city was filled with murderers, vigilantes, thieves, and prostitutes
Studio fences obscured the moviemaking fantasy, but the celebrities, crackpots, cults, and cemeteries for burying your deceased pets were real. Floods, fires and earthquakes reminded residents that nothing here was permanent.
The lack of history suggested an opportunity to shake off the past, leave everything behind, and create something new. It was a chance to experiment and reinvent. And there was crime, just like any other city. But here everything seemed exaggerated and just a bit skewed. Prostitution, gambling and drugs provided a livelihood for thugs as well as cops. Both factions served as enforcers. All of this came to be filtered through pen and paper – and later celluloid – to become LA noir.
Almost from its start, Los Angeles had a reputation as a hellhole. In the mid-1800s the city was filled with murderers, vigilantes, thieves, and prostitutes. Streets were rutted paths where mongrel dogs roamed and dead animals were dumped. LA’s first bit of notoriety in the national headlines was spurred by the massacre of Chinese immigrants near the old city plaza on the Calle de los Negros.
Commonly known in those days as ‘Nigger Alley’, it was described as “…a dreadful thoroughfare, 40ft wide, running one whole block, filled entirely with saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, and cribs. It was crowded night and day with people of many races, male and female, all rushing and crowding along from one joint to another… Nigger Alley was a madhouse, filled with a mass of drunken, crazy Indians, of all ages, fighting, dancing, killing each other off with knives and clubs, and falling paralysed drunk in the street. Every weekend three or four were murdered.”
In 1871 this crowd experienced a killing spree that made national headlines. A Chinese immigrant, shooting wildly in the streets, accidentally hit a white man. Within minutes, denizens of the area had swarmed the Chinese enclave, lynching, ransacking, stabbing, and beating “the heathens”. Eventually, 19 victims were found dead. The grand jury indicted 150 men, with six sent to jail. Several days later, the six were released on a technicality. A pattern was set. It’s no wonder the city was given the cynical sobriquet ‘Los Diablos’ by newspapers around the country.
A dry city was still a thirsty city, one that had to be supplied, and plenty of hoodlums bribed local law enforcers to place a keg or case into the right hands
Things changed as the century turned, but not much. Corrupt city officials and a police force of dubious reputation greeted masses of gullible newcomers who flocked to the ‘Athens of the West’. Many transplants found plenty of sunshine but little else.
Water – a key ingredient that was brought to the Southland under questionable circumstances, making millions for a privileged few – had in just a few years transformed the desert into a mock Eden replete with imported vegetation and made-up architecture. Fortunes were made on oil and land, scandals ensued, and crime became part of the picture. The population rush unearthed scam artists, fakes, frauds, and nutcases who were quick to take advantage of the situation. To fill their physical and mental voids, many newcomers joined clubs for the lonesome or sought solace in healers-of-the-soul – evangelists who rushed to assuage the ‘lost sheep’ with calls for prayer and money.
In the early part of the 20th century, Los Angeles seemed like many other large American cities on the rise. Corruption and vice came with the territory. What made LA different was how new it was, its topography, the omnipresent car, and Hollywood. The car made a big difference. Other cities had developed around traditional horse-drawn vehicles or railroads, and their growth was usually hard, steady, and finite.
LA was a 20th-century city and the first metropolis to come of age with the automobile as its primary means of transportation. With 500sq m filled with roads, LA had plenty of leeway and the city boomed. Hollywood was part of that boom. The mere mention of its name made headlines blossom quicker than any other city in the world. Hollywood set itself apart from the rest of the world and made everything seem larger than life. It was an easy mark and a seemingly ceaseless fountain of inspiration for writers.
With the onset of prohibition, problems increased. A dry city was still a thirsty city, one that had to be supplied, and plenty of hoodlums bribed local law enforcers to place a keg or case into the right hands. Culver City, the ‘Heart of Screenland’, was a case in point.
The linchpin of police corruption was Chief of Police James ‘Two Gun’ Davis. He and his city hall cronies made sure LA remained safe in return for bribes and graft
Home to MGM, Hal Roach, Ince, and a host of other studios, its main drag – Washington Boulevard – was a hotbed of speakeasies, gin joints, roadhouses, and cafés. Film money and the town’s ‘open’ reputation brought crowds to back rooms filled with gambling, bookmaking, and prostitution. The city soon built a racetrack, boxing ring, and dog racing arena – all magnets for hoodlums. With direct access to Pacific Coast rumrunners and local stills, the town was afloat in illegal booze. The Culver City Police Department was notorious for looking the other way, losing evidence, and bungling raids, so crime went on undisturbed.
Gangs and crime bosses knew a good thing when they saw it and came crawling across the country to set up shop. Bootleggers such as Tony Cornero, Dominic DiCiolla, and Albert Marco controlled the business. Vice lords Guy McAfee, Nola Hahn, Jack Dragna, and Bob Gans commandeered their turf, laying claim to numbers rackets, prostitution, gambling, and slot machines. They were local hoodlums and they liked it that way in return for a bit of profit sharing.
The local police were expected to protect them from East Coast concerns muscling in on their territory. When Al Capone came calling in 1927, he was met by a couple of detectives and a vocal chief of detectives who made it clear that the welcome mat wasn’t out. Rumour had it Capone was scouting a seacoast ranch to serve as a drop point for Canadian liquor. After a visit from the cops, he headed back to Chicago, ending his California ‘vacation’. It would be a few more years until real East Coast muscle dropped an anchor in the City of Angels.
The cops could be counted on for more than just keeping East Coast gangsters at bay. The linchpin of police corruption was Chief of Police James ‘Two Gun’ Davis. He and his city hall cronies made sure LA remained safe in return for bribes and graft, which escalated in the 1920s and 1930s to a wholesale spoils system. Their regime culminated in 1938 with the car bombing of private investigator Harry Raymond, an ex-LAPD detective who was in the process of exposing the corruption. The bombers were traced back to LAPD’s intelligence squad, and the ensuing public outrage ousted Mayor Frank Shaw, while Chief Davis – along with 23 of his fellow officers – were forced to resign.
Dark City: The Real Los Angeles Noir is available now from Taschen Books, £75. (taschen.com)