The Telegraph, Expat Life
Since arriving in Los Angeles a little over five months ago, I’ve been amazed at the wide array of diverse communities from differing cultures who call LA their home, adding vibrancy to this place often referred to as “culturally flat”.
Beyond the more obvious Chinatown and Koreatown, there is the Armenian community in Glendale, and the Russians in West Hollywood (the most concentrated single Russian-speaking region in the US outside of New York), all adding to a rich tapestry of culture and style that imbues this sprawling metropolis.
Each community brings diverse cultures, customs and – in some cases – leave indelible marks of their contribution to this city. None more so than individuals arriving here from the UK, who have made significant additions, not just creatively in the entertainment industry in the studios of Hollywood and beyond, but contributions that have shaped the very fabric and physical manifestation of this city.
William Mulholland (1855–1935)
Many will be familiar with Mulholland Drive – the scenic road of twisting turns and hairpin bends that runs through the hills of Hollywood, Beverly Hills and beyond, providing breath-taking views of the city on a clear day. Mulholland’s name was given to this road after his role in bringing much-needed water to the city along this pass in the form of The Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mulholland arrived in Los Angeles in 1877 after a period with the British Merchant Navy. Settling here, his career never ventured far from water and on his way to find work on a ship, he took a job digging a well.
From there, he rose to become the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, where his work in acquiring water for the city was not without controversy. The water was sourced from the Owens Valley – both the lake and the river – creating anger amongst the farmers who depended on it, and triggering the “California Water Wars”.
His career ended abruptly in 1928 after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds and is often cited as the worst US civil engineering disaster of the 20th Century. Those that have seen the iconic Roman Polanski film Chinatown will recognize the familiarity of Mulholland’s history in the character of Henry Mulray, which was based loosely upon him.
Griffith J. Griffith (1850-1919)
Born in Bettws, South Wales, Griffith settled in Los Angeles in 1882 after living in Pennsylvania and San Francisco. After a career as the mining correspondent for a San Francisco newspaper, Griffith earned his money though employment by various mining companies, keen to acquire his knowledge of the industry.
Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles he purchased 4,000 acres of the Rancho Los Feliz Mexican land grant, and later donated over 3,000 acres to the city of Los Angeles for use as a public park in 1896. To honour the donation, the park took the name “Griffith Park”. It is a space five times that of New York’s Central Park, and where the Hollywood sign resides.
His good name was tainted in 1903 when he shot his wife at the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica, leaving her alive but disfigured after the loss of an eye. A heavy drinker – and subject to paranoid delusions – the reason for his attempt on her life was due to his belief that his wife and the Pope were conspiring to poison him.
After two years in prison, Griffith returned to Los Angeles and, attempting to make good again his name, offered money to build a theatre and hall of science within Griffith Park. Although initially rejected, the city eventually took the bulk of the $1.5 million estate bequeathed in his will, using it to build the Greek Theater (1929) and the Griffith Observatory (1935), which remain popular facilities to this day.
John Parkinson (1861-1935)
A celebrated architect who created the iconic Los Angeles City Hall and Central Station, Parkinson was born in Scorton, Lancashire and began his life as a builder in Bolton, before coming to North America at the age of 21. Settling in Los Angeles in 1894, he established his architectural practise in Downtown Los Angeles.
Parkinson brought the first skyscraper to Los Angeles – the Braly Block at 408 South Spring Street, standing some 175 feet high and completed in 1904.
However it was City Hall that dominated the Downtown landscape from its completion in 1928 (co-designed with Albert C. Martin and John C. Austin), until the law stipulating it should the tallest building in Los Angeles was changed in 1956, making way for the high risers that now occupy the area.
David Hockney (1937 to present)
Hockney’s visuals are as typically LA as the Hollywood sign or Sunset Boulevard. The ability to capture the area’s unique colours, the bright blissful blues of the sky and swimming pools especially, are what have helped define this enfant terrible of 1960s pop art culture. He sometimes refers to himself as an “English Los Angelino”, saying of LA:
“There’s a quite sophisticated city out there, yet you can live privately in it.”
Born and schooled in Bradford, he has lived in the Hollywood Hills since 1978. He now spends a lot of his time in Yorkshire, as he prepares for an exhibition at the Royal Academy, due to open in January 2012.
Christopher Isherwood (1904– 1986)
Isherwood, born in Cheshire and settling in Los Angeles in 1939, remarked in his diary that it was “perhaps the ugliest city on earth” and that he was “amazed at the size of the city and its lack of shape”.
Isherwood came to love the place eventually through the interesting characters he met and socialized with there – Tennessee Williams, Bertholt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo amongst them. He would later say that he felt there was no point justifying the allure of the city to people: “either they understand it’s the only place or they don’t”.
Although his observations of California don’t feature in the early works for which he is most known, he did create some of his finest material here including A Single Man, a semi-autobiographical work.
Similarly taking an immediate dislike to the city on first arrival, Huxley called Los Angeles the “city of dreadful joy”, where “thought is barred” and “conversation is unknown”, in his essay Los Angeles. A Rhapsody. He also talked of the strange religions and assembly-line movie making which permeated the city.
However, he was amused by all the differences and interests, “There is everything in Los Angeles…like Venice in 17th century – where East and West would meet and everything would happen here.”
James Aldous, who works in communications, recently moved to Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter here.