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Booming the Real Estate Frontier

THE TRANSFORMATION of American life in the twentieth century made it ever harder for the booster spirit to stay alive. For the booster spirit had thrived on certain simple faiths—a faith in the unpredictability of the future, a belief that the future could hold anything or everything. And especially a faith in the uniqueness of the booster’s own community. Chicago or Kansas City or Omaha or Denver or Dodge City or Oleopolis, each really was “different.” That was the age of the hanging comparative. Each would be bigger and better, becoming a new Athens, a new Rome, or a new London, but somehow greater than and distinct from any prototype.

During the middle and late twentieth century the facts of life taxed these hopes, and then made them untenable. The identities of urban places were dissolved by the creeping vagueness of the boundaries of cities, and by the increasing similarity of places. When anyplace became more like everyplace, it became harder to believe that anyplace was someplace special, harder to boost it and tout it to newcomers, harder to feel even that tenuous, transferable loyalty which the earlier booster town commanded. But all this happened only gradually, over the course of a century. Meanwhile, new versions of the booster spirit had their day.

“THE PURITY OF THE AIR of Los Angeles,” an enthusiast wrote in 1874, “is remarkable. Vegetation dries up before it dies, and hardly ever seems to decay. Meat suspended in the sun dries up, but never rots. The air, when inhaled, gives to the individual a stimulus and vital force which only an atmosphere so pure can ever communicate.” While its remoteness from civilized contagions made Los Angeles the ideal resort for the sufferer from tuberculosis, the city was eminently civilized. In a whole decade, the brochure boasted, the number of persons injured by snakes, poisonous reptiles, and other dangerous animals in southern California was less than the number killed by lightning in one year in one county in an Eastern state. “There are no dangers to travelers on the beaten track in California; there are no inconveniences which a child or a tenderly reared woman would not laugh at … when you have spent half a dozen weeks in the State, you will perhaps return with a notion that New York is the true frontier land, and that you have nowhere in the United States seen so complete a civilization.”

Thus began the Southern California Land Boom of the 1880’s. From this era came the American word “boom,” meaning a sudden increase in prosperity and values. While there were similarities between the booster spirit and the booming spirit, there were also differences. The booster was a community builder, loyal for the time at least to his place, a true believer who cast his lot in advance with those whom he could persuade to join him. While some boomers were true boosters, more of them were mere speculators. The booster was a participant, taking his risks with the rest, but the boomer was a spectator. He sought his profit in the short run, on the likely possibility that the bubble would burst. If the booster deceived, he deceived himself along with others, but the boomer was interested in persuading others only long enough to separate them from their money.

The Southern California boom of the 1880’s was the pattern and prototype of later American land booms. It was the classic mining hoax of the mid-nineteenth century transformed into a land hoax. The country was so big, the distances so great, the actual qualities of the land so uncertain, that it was unclear when honest optimism became swindle.

The late 1860’s had already brought a small boom to Southern California. Droughts had broken up the vast ranches like the Stearn’s ranchos which came to 70,000 acres and which were the heritage of Spanish-Mexican days. In their place appeared small farms practicing intensive agriculture. The extension of the Southern Pacific Railroad created a new winter-resort area and brought people to foci of growth like Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. By the early ‘80’s there was already a transportation network and a firm foundation of prosperity. When the Santa Fe Railroad came in, competition brought the rail fare from Kansas to Los Angeles down to $1.

“It has been a subject of regret ever since,” lamented the novelist Charles Dudley Warner, “that I did not buy Southern California when I was there last March, and sell it out the same month. I should have made enough to pay my railway fare back … and had money left to negotiate for one of the little States on the Atlantic Coast.” Another writer, less facetious, saw in Los Angeles “this newer and nobler life which is growing up here upon the shores of the Pacific … the fair promise of a civilization which had its only analogue in that Graeco-Latin race-flowering which came to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean centuries ago.”

Los Angeles, which Warner christened “The Golden Hesperides,” was the center of spreading, booming enthusiasms. Railroad flatcars draped in festive flags arrived with prospective buyers. Auctions, enlivened by brass bands and free lunches, stirred them to buy tracts of desert that had been marked off into 25-foot lots. Real estate agents in Los Angeles numbered more than two thousand, and in a single year sold more than $100 million of real estate. Schools, already crowded to accommodate the children of newly arrived settlers, had to offer double sessions.

The number of new subdivisions whose plans were filed in Los Angeles County during the 1886–88 boom came to 1,770. And real estate prices skyrocketed. A 25-acre tract on Seventh Street near Figueroa which found no buyers when offered in 1886 for $11,000, the next year sold for $80,000. A front foot at Sixth and Main streets which sold for $20 in 1883 went for $800 in 1887. “Los Angeles is booming,” boasted the Tribune, “and is likely to boom for years to come.”

The climax came in 1887. By then the population had increased from the 11,000 it counted before the boom, to over 80,000. In the latter half of that year, when the Los Angeles post office handled the mail of 200,000 transients, every day the real estate transfers recorded were in excess of $100,000 and they commonly reached $500,-000. During June, July, and August there were $38 million of real estate transfers in Los Angeles County.

The Los Angeles boom reached out to the shore, stretched north and south from Santa Barbara to San Diego and inland following the railroad lines. One of the most successful boom towns in the San Gabriel Valley was Monrovia, named after its founder, a railroad construction engineer who had laid out his 60-acre town in 1886. In May 1887, auctions sold inside lots (50 feet by 160 feet) for $100, corner lots for $150. In November the town (pop. 500) was incorporated, and the two inevitable hotels were built. Some of the $150 lots were now selling for $8,000. By early 1888 the city actually needed to employ a man to collect its garbage for $5 per week. Streetcar rails were laid in May of that year. By 1890 the town’s population had doubled.

Imaginative advertising quickly became a substitute for whatever was lacking in the land. For example, some Los Angeles businessmen organized the Azusa Land and Water Company in December 1886, bought 4,000 acres of the old Rancho Azusa, plotted a town, and within four months started selling lots. They reserved the good agricultural land for farms, and put the town site in a spot that was sand, gravel and boulder wash. When asked why the town was put there, the promoter explained, “If it’s not good for a town, it isn’t good for anything.” But the site proved more than good enough for a boom town. An extravagant advertising campaign attracted buyers to stand in line all night awaiting the opening of the sale the next morning. The man who stood second in line reportedly refused $1,000 from someone who wanted his place, but the man fifth in line did sell his place for $500. Nearly half the town lots were sold in the first three days, and at the end of two months the promoters had a profit of $1,175,000. They celebrated their success by erecting in the heart of the town a brick building and a hotel.

Pasadena, a more substantial boom town, had been founded by a group from Indiana in 1874, and was still a village in 1880. Soon after the Santa Fe Railroad came through in 1885, the Raymond Hotel was completed and became the main attraction, bringing more than 35,000 guests in 1886 and 1887. Two additional hotels were built, and by 1886 the town possessed fifty-three real estate agencies, boasted a population of 6,000, announced plans for a $100,000 “opera house,” and recorded a rising crime rate to prove that it really was becoming a metropolis.

By the spring of 1888, for reasons not entirely clear, the Southern California boom had not actually burst, but rather, as one observer noted, “gradually shrivelled up.” Boomers who had boasted that “you need not till the soil, you can look on while the earth sends forth her plenty,” began to regret the lack of cultivated crops and industries. In areas like Pasadena, fertile orange groves had been neglected in the hope that they would become town lots. But population had grown so rapidly that municipal services such as water, sewerage, roads, and schools could not keep pace. The boom left its own legacy of ghost towns, along with scores of “universities,” colleges, academies, and cultural centers.

The University of Southern California had been founded in 1879 with a real estate endowment, and two years later came the University of California at Los Angeles, followed by Whittier College, which was a joint product of the religious hopes of Quakers and the commercial enterprise of the real estate firm that had successfully developed the town of Whittier.

One of the more successful of the boom colleges, Occidental College, originally called Occidental University, was incorporated in February 1887. An evangelical Presbyterian institution, it had fixed its tuition at $50 per year and had made Monday rather than Saturday the college holiday so that commuting students would not be obliged to travel on the Sabbath. Since the college had been founded by a gift of $50,000 worth of real estate, a campus was reserved out of the gift, and the rest was sold to support the institution. According to its advertising, the institution admirably combined real estate with educational values:

UNIVERSITY HOMES

IN

OCCIDENTAL HEIGHTS TRACT

A beautiful site. Best water in the country piped to every lot. Rich soil. Pure air. An educational center. No better place in the State for a home. Prices $250, $300, $500. Terms to suit. Call on or write to the

President of the Occidental University

Countless other institutions, which lacked promotional talent or substantial real estate endowment, became ghost colleges, leaving no trace on the landscape.

Whatever else the boom proved, it did dramatize the power of advertising, and the willingness of some Americans to believe anything that was told them vividly and extravagantly and repeatedly. Boom newspapers, in the tradition of the booster press, flourished. When San Diego’s boom population numbered 20,000, the city already possessed five newspapers. And there was hardly a boom town, real or imaginary, that did not have at least one newspaper of its own.

The very success of Southern California in promoting its peculiar “foreign” charm was a force that actually destroyed that charm, and soon assimilated California to the nation. The decline of the Spanish missions and the disintegration of the vast ranches had made possible the first boom of the ’60’s and ’70’s, but the flavor of missions and ranches still remained as a come-on for the boom of the ’80’s. By the end of that boom much of the Spanishness of Southern California, an inheritance of two centuries, had become nothing but an advertising slogan. The Spanish legacy remained visible in the place-names, but even these had been jazzed up into countless Glendoras, Venices, Ballonas, Baronas and Englewoods. Just as the Gold Rush had brought Northern California into the mainstream of national life, so too, as the historian Glenn S. Dumke suggests, the boom of the ’80’s brought in Southern California. The nation’s history was being dissolved by its geography, and the continent was being suburbanized.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HAD set a pattern and developed techniques which were followed even more extravagantly at the other end of the continent. If Southern California boomers could sell city “lots” in a barren desert where water was nowhere to be seen, could not Florida boomers sell city “lots” that were three feet under water? American salesmanship and advertising proved more than equal to the challenge. Florida made the California boom seem puny. During the whole boom of the ’80’s, real estate transactions in Southern California had totaled about $200,000,000, but in Florida, three-fourths that amount was spent on the single project of Coral Gables. Southern California was but a modest forecast of things to come.

Perhaps because so much of the state of Florida was half hidden under water, its subtropical landscape and balmy climate had made it a traditional setting for extravagant myths. Florida, the fabled location of a sixteenth-century Fountain of Youth, would become the actual location of a twentieth-century Fountain of Wealth. After the king of Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1819, two development companies, well before the Civil War, tried to sell Florida real estate, and had a modest success until hurricances, yellow fever, and hostile Seminole Indians put an end to their hopes.

How the Florida boom of the 1920’s began nearly a century later remains a mystery. Apparently it was the idea of some wealthy Northern businessmen who had tried Florida as a winter resort and who were attracted by the cheapness of the vast tracts of interior wastelands, by the unspoiled seashore, and by the acres of possibly tillable soil. The Florida East Coast Railroad reached down to the remote southern tip of the peninsula in 1900, and a program then began for draining the Everglades. By 1924 the boom was under way.

The natural appeal of the state, with its exotic landscape and its faintly Spanish flavor, was endorsed by the business celebrities of the day. And if you couldn’t trust the business judgment of the nation’s richest men, whom could you trust? Henry M. Flagler (commemorated in Flagler Street, a main street of Miami, and headquarters of the real estate business), the close associate of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, built two palatial hotels (the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar) at St. Augustine, then constructed the Florida East Coast Railroad, along which he erected numerous additional de luxe hotels. And there was Barron Collier, who had begun with a small printing business, then made a fortune pioneering in streetcar advertising, and went on to control the advertising and vending machines in New York subways. Collier bought an island off the west coast of Florida for a winter home, acquired more than a million acres of adjacent semi-swamp, built across it a road (later called the Tamiami Trail), and transformed his acres into a thriving new Collier County. A host of other business celebrities came, including J. C. Penney, John and Charles Ringling of circus fame, T. Coleman DuPont of Delaware, and others equally respectable. High-powered publicity came from Roger W. Babson, the stock-market pundit and statistician, and most conspicuously from William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan became a Florida resident and then used the eloquence that had three times secured him the Democratic nomination for President to extol Florida real estate. He proclaimed the state “a leader in education and morals” and made his own contribution to Florida education by drafting a resolution passed by the Florida legislature condemning the teaching of the doctrine of evolution in any form. His orations on Florida, delivered with religious fervor at the rallies for Coral Gables, persuaded unbelievers, while real estate agents stood by to sign up the converted. Literary enticement came from innumerable books, and especially from a widely quoted series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post.

The Florida boom followed the classic California pattern. Prospective customers were given free bus trips around the state by real estate promoters who had come to Florida expressly to get rich off the suckers. Big operators temporarily shifted their interests to the state from the stock market or from solid real estate dealings elsewhere, with the expectation that they would shift their investments out of Florida when they had taken their profit or when they saw the bubble about to burst. Coral Gables, promoted in a bombastic illustrated booklet by the novelist Rex Beach, promised to be a “modified Mediterranean—a new Venice, with silent pools, canals and lagoons”—but even more beautiful than the old Venice, since, from the very beginning, it would be protected by zoning. “Boca Raton will surpass in exclusiveness any resort on Florida’s East Coast,” prospects were assured. “But the democracy of Addison Mizner has provided large and well selected bathing beaches, golf courses, and tennis courts, aviation field, polo ground and dock rights for the use of all. No existing world resort of wealth and fashion compares with Boca Raton, and never before has there been offered such opportunity of financial reward through early participation in a Florida enterprise.” When Boca Raton lots were offered in May 1925, the first day’s sales reputedly exceeded $2 million, even before any of its touted glories had been transferred from paper to the landscape.

Smaller subdivisions around Miami sold out on the first day of sale. Prospective customers were made to feel rude if they asked to see the actual sites. According to one observer, in September 1925:

Lots were bought from blue prints. They look better that way. Then the buyer gets the promoter’s vision, can see the splendid curving boulevards, the yacht basin, the parks lined with leaning cocoanut trees, the flaming hibiscus. The salesman can show the expected lines of heavy travel and help select a double (two-lot) corner for business, or a quiet water-front retreat suitable for a winter home. To go see the lot—well—it isn’t done. Often it is not practicable, for most of the lots are sold “predevelopment.” The boulevards are yet to be laid, the yacht basin must be pumped out, and the excavated dirt used to raise the proposed lots above water or bog level. Then they will be staked, the planning done, and the owner can find his lot.

Some conservative Eastern bankers cautioned their clients and simply asked, “When will the Florida boom collapse?” And the Florida propagandists retorted:

Men asked the same question in George Washington’s day about the Ohio country, when Cincinnati was as young as Miami is today. They doubted in Lincoln’s time whether Iowa land prices were not too high. Forty years ago one could hear dire predictions of the imminent collapse of a “boom” town on Lake Michigan, called Chicago. Only recently similar forecasts were being broadcast of the ultimate fate of Los Angeles and all southern California.

Enthusiasm was beginning to abate and prices were declining by early 1926. Then, on September 19, a hurricane blew away the boom. Where “security was a certainty” there was now desolation. Undaunted optimists tried to turn away the Red Cross which came with relief for the hurricane sufferers because, they said, the publicity would damage property values.

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