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An amazing new look at Great Depression-era Los Angeles

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The LA River unpaved, oil derricks all over the place

A new collection of photos available in the Digital Collections of the California Historical Society offers an amazing look at Los Angeles and Angelenos during the days of the Great Depression. The photos are all the work of Anton Wagner, a PhD student from Germany’s University of Kiel who came to Los Angeles to study it in depth and to document it for his research, says KCET.

Wagner spent time in Los Angeles between August 1932 and February 1933, shooting photos to use "as research materials for his 1935 dissertation, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben, und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien (Los Angeles: The Development, Life and Form of the Southern Californian Metropolis)."

His photographs offer an interesting look at Depression-era Los Angeles, capturing the conditions in which people lived, the roads people drove, the places Angelenos worked, and neighborhoods that no longer exist.

Wagner came to LA because he was investigating its incredible growth from more or less a backwater to a full-on metropolis, especially in light of the odds stacked against it. "Wagner sought to explain how a city in such a ‘disadvantageous geographical setting’ could grow and prosper with such robust vigor," explains KCET. (Some of our disadvantages included earthquakes and a lack of natural water sources.)

Wagner thought he would find that nature would win against Angelenos, but by the time he wrote his dissertation, his position was that Angelenos were miraculously thriving. Wagner credited citizens with the success of the city. "Los Angeles has produced the active spirit of the citizens in the awareness that the welfare of the individual depends upon the thriving and importance of the communal," Wagner wrote in his dissertation.

Wagner’s photos of the unpaved Los Angeles River and Westwood are unrecognizable to a modern eye. And even photos with recognizable scenes have one alternate-universe-type addition, such as oil derricks in the middle of the at La Cienega near Third Street.

The vision of 1932 and 1933 Los Angeles that emerges after viewing many of these photos is that from some angles LA was very metropolitan, and from others, it was still downright rural.

The full, 438-photo collection is viewable here.