Off-Ramp®

A weekly look at SoCal life covering news, arts and culture, and more. Hosted by John Rabe

From radical unionists to feral cats: One of downtown LA's most historic sites is an empty lot

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

Recovery of victim from the rubble created by the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building at First Street and Broadway. L.A. Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

That vacant lot across from the L.A. Times building — on First between Broadway and Spring in downtown Los Angeles — is no ordinary vacant lot. As Robert Petersen, host and producer of The Hidden History of Los Angeles, tells us, it's the site of at least two bombings and two famous tent cities, and was the site of a huge colony of feral cats.

Robert Petersen, host of The Hidden History of Los Angeles podcast, at First and Spring in downtown Los Angeles — a very historic vacant lot.
Robert Petersen, host of The Hidden History of Los Angeles podcast, at First and Spring in downtown Los Angeles — a very historic vacant lot. John Rabe

We talked with our backs to the chain link fence that surrounds the site now. “If you go back 100 years, Los Angeles was in a much different political situation,” Petersen says. “Terrorism was actually on the minds of a lot of people … but back then you would think about anarchists or labor activists. At the time there was a big struggle between big business and organized labor. At the heart of that struggle was Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the L.A. Times, who was notoriously anti-union.”

And the vacant lot was the home of the former L.A. Times building. The current L.A. Times building we know today is actually its third building, which opened in 1935.

On Oct. 1, 1910, two brothers decided to plant a bomb at this former building site on the northeast corner of Broadway Avenue and First Street. Their suitcase bomb held about 17 sticks of dynamite. The bomb was set off  shortly after 1 a.m. — with a little over 100 people still in the building.

“What the bombers didn’t know is that there were gas lines underneath the building,” Petersen says. “A huge fire engulfed the building and 20 people died, most of them burned alive.”

The L.A. Times immediately blamed the bombing on the unions, but brothers John and James  McNamara were not arrested until April 14, 1911 in the Oxford Hotel in Detroit. It wasn’t until then that it was discovered that one of the men involved in the bombing did in fact have connections to the labor union known as the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers.

The lot became home of the State Building in 1932 — the same year as the first L.A. Olympics. The opening ceremony for the building featured guest speaker Amelia Earhart. In 1974, the Weather Underground bombed the building, but it stood until 1976 when earthquake damage caused it to be closed and demolished. But they didn't get rid of the foundation or underground parking lot for 39 years.

The area then took on a different life. In 1984, homeless activist decided to create a tent city, which created a space for hundreds of homeless people to camp out. In 1986 they did it again, but this time they got a 5,000-square-foot circus tent, and it covered 200 homeless people.

More recently, the parking structure underneath the old state building became home to a colony of feral cats. Last year, when the parking structure was demolished, workers had to remove all of the cats before work could continue.

If you have one of those cats, or know someone who does, we'd love to hear from you.

With contributions from Jesus Ambrosio

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