LA Public Library
Looking south down Spring Street near 3rd Street (left, with cluster of cars), showing various structures, including the Douglas Building (left of center) and the ornate Lyceum Theatre (right of center).
The first thing anybody ever filmed in Los Angeles was oncoming traffic.
On Feb. 24, 1898, Thomas Edison’s employee, James H. White, went to downtown Los Angeles and pointed his unwieldy camera up South Spring Street. Commissioned by the Southern Pacific Railroad, White immortalized everything that passed in front of him for almost thirty seconds.
Lucky for White it was only 1898. He apparently thought nothing of standing right there in the street and making everybody go around him.
As movies go, “South Spring Street, Los Angeles, Cal” won’t make anybody forget “Citizen Kane.”
The first thing we see is a bustling streetscape in blurry, jerky monochrome. The roadway is dirt. Pedestrians fill the sidewalks. The curb isn’t a barrier, more of a suggestion. The day is a sunny one. Blockish office buildings cast long, early-morning or late-afternoon shadows.
It’s rush hour on the one-way street. Two men in a horse-drawn carriage are driving toward the camera. The carriage veers off, followed by another behind it.
Now six white horses are pulling an open stagecoach in our direction. A stagecoach! A passenger in back lowers his large umbrella from upright to horizontal, as if he wants to slow the coach down.
Traffic lets up for a moment. One man crosses the street on foot from left to right, three more from right to left. The last man is looking down at something in his hand, oblivious to the hubbub around him. The posture is strikingly modern. It’s like he’s checking his email.
Now the traffic really picks up. More horses in harness gallop toward us, drawing an open public coach with seven or eight people jouncing along up top. A bicyclist pedals by, swerving briefly toward the camera as if to give us a scare.
And now the capper: a stylish streetcar glides by, electrified on overhead wires. On the front, you can barely make out most of the curved words “Los Angeles” and, below it, “Railway.” A man -- maybe the conductor, maybe just an exuberant passenger -- holds on with one hand and swings out into nothing. Then, as if he knows that the film is running out, he looks right at us, and waves.
Finally, in the distance, a burly policeman detaches himself from the sidewalk crowds and trundles into Spring Street. His greatcoat is belted, his helmet high. He has no inkling that his next proud step is his last.
And then? Nothing. The slow fadeout hasn’t been invented yet.
A few things jump out at you right away.
First of all, women are completely missing. We know that most of them were at home, doing laundry, baking pies, and talking about us. But all of them?
Second, all the men wear hats. All of them, as if there’s a law. Where did all those hats go? Did the men trade them in for women?
And finally, it hits you. In the first images of Los Angeles ever recorded, you’ve been watching a vision of the city as it once was -- and as it’s occasionally starting to look again. Maybe half a dozen different kinds of locomotion on the same street. Cyclists, walkers, drivers, convertibles, streetcars, even animals. It actually looks a little like CicLAvia.
Oh, and one more thing: despite all the traffic, there are no traffic jams. If only for 30 seconds.
David Kipen runs Libros Schmibros, the Boyle Heights lending library, and contributes to KPCC’s Take Two and Off-Ramp.