Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Urban consequences of the 1924 plague in Los Angeles

Los Angeles city dump, 1924. Online archive of California

The plague is an infectious disease of animals and humans caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis. People usually get plague from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an infected animal. (CDC Plague home page). Three clinical forms of human plague exist: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic.

About 10 to 15 people per year contract the disease in the US, usually in rural places, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but now is rarely fatal. Plague was first recognized in the United States in San Francisco in 1900, and appeared in Los Angeles County in 1908. The disease was likely introduced to western United States ports via infected rats and humans who traveled on ships from Asia. In the United States, the last urban plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25.
By that time, nineteen percent of the residents in Los Angeles were foreign born. There were approximately 2,000 Chinese, 12,000 Japanese, and 22,000, each group settling in different locations. (A.J. Viseltear,1974)
This plague had ethnic connotations. The plague was to be controlled together with immigrants, in a clear form of segregation that was unquestionably understood.
Though historical pictures show many buildings in very precarious conditions, including the public ones, the city health department ordered a quarantine of the “Mexican District”, a downtown section of small homes and industrial sites around Macy Street and near the river.(Deverell, 2005). Many of the structures pictured in 1924 are shacks and other low income residences. Captions identify a "Mexican Village," "Chinatown," and "negro dwellings" in various locations.

Immigrants shacks, Los Angeles 1924. Online archive of California

Mexican shacks, Los Angeles 1924. Online archive of California

“The quarantine, which lasted two weeks, would eventually stretch to include five urban districts. There can be little doubt, given the way in which these neighborhoods were described, by language and by perimeter, that officials perceived an overlap between ethnicity and disease.” (Deverell, 2005). Mexican areas had to be condemned and destroyed, all of them, though the verifiable cases of plague were concentrated in a couple of blocks. The plague had been peculiarly Mexicanized overseeing the rest of inhabitants.
Urban fabric of Los Angeles changed drastically, by plague-fighting design. Poor properties –approximately 2500 units- were demolished or burnt without compensation. The overall plan was a combination of slash and burn destruction and a campaign to lift structures off the ground with blocks, so cats and dogs would be free to hunt the rats under the buildings.
“The men, it was later reported, had to destroy a large part of Los Angeles”. (Deverell, 2005). Buildings were not replaced, so the dispossessed scattered to other parts of the city and county, many of them into other quarters that were unfit for home habitation. It would affect the existing neighborhoods for long years.

Burning of a Mexican Village, Los Angeles, 1924. Online Archive of California

Wrecking of China Town in Los Angeles, 1924. Online Archive of California

Wrecking shacks in Los Angeles, 1924. Online Archive of California.

One contemporary report read, Mexicans, unlike Orientals, did not attempt to hide their dead. When seriously ill, they called a priest and were prompt in securing medical aid. What proved to be lucky for health authorities, as they knew about the death toll from the beginning. The irony in the report is that the mere Mexican practices, would help the disease transfer, what was also reinforced by cultural habits as to visit relatives and friends during their illness.
Health authorities also agreed that Mexicans should not be permitted to live next to food industries, even though they were the ones doing the work in these industries.
The description of Mexican districts were no more than captions on the pictures. It became obvious that immigration was increasing with the logical consequences of overcrowded rooming houses and shacks construction at the backyards.
This terrible malady is expressed as a social and cultural phenomenon; it is related with the organization, way of life and configuration of the urban space. Its ecological impact generates adaptive strategies in the inhabitants and community organizations, new immigrants displacements, and reviews of religions beliefs that justify these changes.

Further readings:
Online Archive of California
Deverell, William. Whitewashed Adobe. The rise of Los Angeles and the remaking of its Mexican past. University of California Press, 2005.
González, Andrea S. “El impacto de la enfermedad en la organización social y el espacio urbano El caso de la epidemia de fiebre amarilla en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires en 1871” en Revista Medicina y Sociedad.No2-2001. También on line, 2001

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