Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow Lives On

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Park La Brea, Corbusier, and Planning the City of the Future

Park La Brea, the largest housing project west of the Mississippi, is one of a great many  high-density housing projects built across the country in the first half of the twentieth century. Located west of downtown Los Angeles, the complex is an assembly of low garden-apartments and thirteen story towers, the latter of which make it something of an anomaly in the low-rise environment of Los Angeles. It and its fellows were the product of half a century of thought regarding the state of the city and the question of how to define its future. The schemes  which birthed it—from Ebenezer Howard’s garden city to Le Corbusier’s City of To-morrow— have been roundly and often justifiably criticized since their inception and even more vociferously from the 50’s onward, when the tracts and projects which had been built in their name began to decline. However, Park La Brea stands out as an instance of one of these projects which did not decline and, furthermore, shows no signs of doing so. Rather, Park La Brea has, in its now more than 75 year history, enjoyed unprecedented success, remaining attractive to Angeleno home buyers (there is always a list to get in) and succeeding in creating a diverse and vibrant community, despite all odds. As such, Park La Brea, anomalous though it may seem, seems to offer something of a vindication of so-often criticized utopian designs of early twentieth century planners, perhaps indicating that at their cores, those utopian plans were not so far off-base.

In 1937, the United States thought it had glimpsed the beginnings of a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that was the Great Depression. Unemployment was still high (though lower than it had been at its 25% peak in 1933), but production, profits, and wages had regained their pre-crash, 1929 levels and so the federal government began to withdraw its economic support. As it turned out, the path out was not as straight, nor as short, as it had seemed. In the middle of 1937, the economy took another turn for the worst: the GDP fell 10%, unemployment hit 20% (the highest it had been since its 1933 peak), and industrial production fell 32%. As part of Roosevelt’s plan to alleviate the effects of the 1937 downturn, a series of policies were enacted with an aim towards revitalizing production and creating jobs. One of these was the creation of the Federal Housing Administration and, with it, the first national housing legislation, whose goal was explicitly “to alleviate present and recurring unemployment and to remedy the unsafe and insanitary housing conditions and the acute shortage of decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families of low income.” With the help of federal dollars, plans began to spring up across the country for the construction of housing for moderate-income families in the last few years of the 30’s, largely developed by insurance companies. One of these proposed projects was for a complex located right at the heart of Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile, on land which had been bought from the the University of Southern California by a New York based insurance company—Metropolitan Life—with a desire of investing in projects which would be “valuable from the standpoint of public service.”

Despite opposition from local landlords and residents, plans went ahead in 1940 for a complex of thirty-one two-story garden apartments comprising 2,700 units set around irregular green common spaces, and taking up only 18 percent of the land available, leaving the rest open for landscaping and recreation. In 1941, with the help of the city of Los Angeles, ground was broken at the site and construction began. However with the advent of World War II, construction was forced to slow and in 1944 it was suspended entirely, with only half of the intended units built.

When construction began anew in 1948, the political, social, and economic landscape of Los Angeles—as well as of the United States and the world—had entirely changed. In a city where demand for housing (and consequently real estate prices) had skyrocketed as a result of an influx of veterans and the numbers of industrial sector workers who opted to stay in the city after the war, no longer did low-rise, garden apartments make sense, economic or otherwise. In 1948, LA needed low to moderate-income housing and lots of it—fast. The plans for the rest of the development were scrapped and the complex redesigned to include eighteen thirteen-story tower blocks of apartment units, which would stand at angles to one another at the heart of the complex, surrounded by the already-built low-rise garden apartments. In this plan, comprising 4,200 units, only 18% of the site’s 176 acres was covered by buildings. In 1948, construction for these towers (designed by the same architect of the low-rise apartments, Leonard Schultze of New York) began, largely with the help of the very same workmen who had been housed in the finished units during the war.

In 1950, Park La Brea (variously Parklabrea and Park LaBrea) officially opened and became an immediate icon of the Miracle Mile neighborhood as well as a well-known figure of the Los Angeles skyline, partly because of its status as an anomaly in the low-rise landscape of Los Angeles, where 13 stories really did (and still does) feel like a tower.


Fig. 1 A circa 1950 postcard depicting the Park La Brea complex and demonstrating the cultural impact it had on Los Angeles, becoming an almost immediate icon of the mid-city Miracle mile region.

However, Park La Brea wasn’t just born out of economic need and the immediate problem of post-war urban crowding; it was the product of half a century of philosophizing and theorizing on the part of both architects and urban planners to attempt to solve the “problem” of the city. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, critics of the city had been pushing for a reimagining of urban environments—a complete overhaul which would allow an increasingly urbanizing world to meet the needs of the coming century, without the attendant ills of pollution, slums, overcrowding, and high stratification within a city’s society. Out of these concerns was born the Garden City Movement, led by British reformer Ebenezer Howard, who, in his book Garden Cities of To-Morrow, set out a plan by which to reintegrate the city with nature, addressing poor living conditions, overcrowding, pollution, and the lack of greenery in urban spaces with one fell swoop.


Fig. 2 Advert in a 1920 edition of Punch for Howard’s experimental Garden City, Welwyn, illustrating the proposed shift towards nature.

Howard’s city proposed “to raise the standard of health and comfort of all . . .  workers—-the means by which these objects are to be achieved being a healthy, natural, and economic combination of town and country life, and this on land owned by the municipality.” Thus, Howard’s city became one large publicly-owned complex, operating a single, harmonious community. As if to preempt accusations of socialism, Howard emphasizes that “the fullest measure of individual taste and preference is encouraged” in the building and design of the “very varied” houses, as long as they follow the city’s street line, which is organized on the principle of several concentric circles, divided from one-another by tree-lined avenues. At the heart of these circles is a large, central garden-park, from which radiate a system of “magnificent boulevards,” dividing the city into equally sized “wards” (see Figure 3). In all, a city comprising 1,000 acres would contain two large parks totaling a minimum of 260 acres as well as a multitude of smaller parks and gardens, interspersed with the houses, churches, and schools.


Fig. 3 Diagram of one of the Garden City’s six wards, showing the central garden and the single-use concentric rings encircling it.

While Howard concerned himself with elements of the city and its workings extending far beyond its layout, it was his diagrams for its planning which formed his ultimate legacy. The influence of the “garden city” concept set in motion series of projects across the UK and US to reintroduce nature to urban life, largely in the form of public parks. In the US, the push toward the garden-city model was led by planners Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, who, beginning in the 1920s, began to apply Howard’s principles on the smaller scale of neighborhoods on the East Coast—most famously in the case of the unfinished Radburn, in New Jersey. Stein and Henry were lured to Southern California in 1938 by the potential of a city with the available space to integrate the garden-city model and, following the creation of the Federal Housing Administration, they became the overseers of the Housing Authority of Los Angeles County. In the tradition of Howard, Henry and Stein sought to provide the best of both worlds to residents: the amenities of the city coupled with a sense of detachment from that same city symbolized by an ability to retreat into open green space. The FHA heavily backed these garden-apartment designs, believing that “offered renters the nearest thing to ‘home’ that can be found in apartment buildings—private entrances, front yards, [and] few overhead neighbors.” Stein and Henry, though they were not personally involved in Park La Brea, has set the tone for the designs of Southern Californian housing, with complexes and planned neighborhoods like Carmelitos and Harbor Heights. Low-scale houses (usually no more than two to four stories), arranged around cul-de-sacs and open, automobile-free greens, were seen, at the time, as the ideal places to live.

Thus in 1939, when Leonard Schultze first set out a plan for Park La Brea, these were the influences he was drawing upon. The initial plan fit right into the garden-city apartment tradition, containing only two-story garden villas arranged around irregularly-shaped green courtyard spaces, hidden from the surrounding streets (Figure 4). The apartments, though located at the center of the city, would afford their inhabitants the pleasures of the serene garden setting as well, allowing them to escape their urban cares. The plan for the complex even echoed Howard’s Garden City diagrams in its use of radiating avenues from a central garden-space which divided the residential blocks into wedges reminiscent of Howard’s wards.

Fig. 4 One of the original two-story garden villas and the green garden-space behind it.

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Fig. 5 Aerial shot of the radial organization of the garden villa apartments from a central green space, c. 1950.

This garden-apartment plan, though, was not the final one for Park La Brea. Rather, when construction was able to recommence in 1948, the plans had undergone a change in order to accommodate the changed Los Angeles landscape. LA’s urban population had swelled, particularly in the lower income bracket, during and after the war and it gave no sign of slowing. LA didn’t need low-density garden apartments anymore; it needed housing for the masses. The challenges facing Los Angeles in 1948 were analogous to those which had been facing American and European cities since the start of the 20th century: ever-increasing urban populations and the need to accommodate them. This question of what to do with the city and the people flooding into it had spawned plan after utopian plan in the late teens and 20’s, particularly in Europe where space to spread outwards from the existing city was more limited than in the US, but none of these plans had more impact than the French architect Le Corbusier’s plan for a City of Three Million Inhabitants—or La Ville Contemporaine—which he first proposed in 1922. Explored at length in his later book The City of To-morrow and its Planning, Corbusier’s proposal was radical and paradoxical in its approach: it demanded high density living in order to preserve open space; it eliminated streets in order to speed up traffic; it was predicated simultaneously on the order of the straight line and the picturesque curved line of nature. Corbusier summed up the crux of his idea saying “the garden city [of Howard] is a will-o’-the-wisp. . . nature melts under the invasion of roads and houses and the promised seclusion becomes a crowded settlement. . . The solution will be found in the ‘vertical garden city’.” Corbusier’s idea was not a city in a garden, but a tower in a park: Howard’s idea catapulted into the twentieth century and a world in which the question of the day was not how to escape the city while still living in it, but how to house the city itself. At the heart of his proposed city was a grouping of cruciform towers, 60 stories high, with distances between them ranging from 250 to 300 yards, allowing for parkland surrounding and connecting the towers. The towers’ cruciform design and the distance between them would enable “all the windows [to] have an uninterrupted view,” further integrating them with nature and allowing one to forget the presence of the city. Surrounding these towers, would be a sector of low-profile housing units set back from the street, closely recalling Howard’s ring of houses. These would also be surrounded by greenery and have at their centers green, open courtyards. The final layer of the city itself would be given over to housing units on the “cellular” system, without setbacks.


Fig. 6 Corbusier’s plan for “A Contemporary City,” from The City of To-Morrow and its Planning.

Though admired by some, Corbusier’s plans and ideas have fallen prey to intense criticism, as have the buildings and complexes they influenced. In her The Death and Life of American Cities, planner and critic Jane Jacobs (an anti-Cobusierite herself) sums up the negative reaction to Corbusier as “cries of institutionalization, mechanization, depersonalization.” Jacobs goes on to accuse Corbusier’s designs and those of his imitators of telling “nothing but lies” about the way the city works, while standing “like a great, visible ego [telling] of someone’s achievement.” “like a great, visible ego [they] tell of someone’s achievement. Elements of Corbusier’s designs have been fiercely criticized as well: Wade Graham argues that the spaces between his towers are “confused amalgams of sidewalks, planting, and pavement, arrangements that might resemble a park but are clearly no such thing” while Jacobs vilifies the practice of building parks wherever possible, pointing out that they often end up unused and become breeding grounds for crime and decay.  Jacobs also attacks the idea of low ground coverage, which Corbusier emphatically believed in, citing another MetLife complex, New York’s Stuyvesant Town, as an example of the way in which low ground coverage forces dwellings to be “rigidly standardized in rank upon rank of virtually identical, massive elevator apartment houses” defying even the most imaginative architects to achieve anything beyond superficial differences. Critics see Le Corbusier as hopelessly utopian, calling him self-delusive and out of touch with the realities of men and city-living. His plans and buildings are rejected for their perceived austerity and uncompromising nature, called authoritarian, oppressive, destructive of individuality, diversity, and variety.

In light of these criticisms, it becomes particularly interesting to look at Park La Brea and the manner in which, in updating its plans in 1948, Leonard Schultze borrowed from Corbusier to the extent that Park La Brea resembles a small scale Ville Radieuse or Ville Contemporaine. Schultze’s 18 towers, though only 13 stories high, echo Corbusier’s: they are elevator-based and cruciform (though Schultze’s are slightly elongated, resembling a bow-tie or an X rather than a true cross, allowing him more space in lower buildings). Schultze’s towers are widely spaced and separated by park and paths as Corbusier’s were (though at Park La Brea the distance is much less than Corbusier’s 250 yards, though considering his buildings’ lower height, the proportions remain similar) and just as Corbusier’s towers were not the only unit of his city, Schultze’s towers are integrated with the pre-war two-story garden villas. The biggest difference between Schultze’s plan and Corbusier’s is that Schultze’s towers are not organized on a grid, but at angles to one another, maximizing the feeling of distance between them with the space available. These angles follow the lines of radial pathways connecting Park La Brea’s tri-sectional layout, (not concentric as in Corbusier and Howard): two octagons border and collide with a square on its point (Figure 7). Though the center of Corbusier’s cities was organized on a grid, he made extensive use of radial boulevards in the outer sections of his city, referencing his admiration for uniformly organized plans like those of Versailles and Hausmann’s renovation of Paris (Figures 11-12). These same influences are evident in Park La Brea’s design as it relies on these radial arteries, connecting its larger forms to one another via four main nodal plazas, circular in shape.

Figs. 7, 8 The plan for Park La Brea showing the interlocking square and two octagons connected by radial arteries as well as the locations of Schultze’s cruciform towers. And, superimposed top right, Corbusier’s design for his cruciform towers from Towards an Architecture.

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Figs. 9, 10 An illustration by Corbusier of his Ville Radieuse compared with an aerial view of Park La Brea.

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Fig. 11 The plan for Versailles, showing the use of radial boulevards connected multiple plazas.


Fig. 12 An aerial view of the Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris, one of the products of Hausmann’s renovation.

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In borrowing Corbusier’s combination tower-garden apartment model, Park La Brea inherited some of the paradoxical nature of Corbusier’s city and perhaps even highlighted the paradox by compressing the two into a tighter space than Corbusier had imagined. While the garden-apartments are predicated on the effort to cultivate a feeling of seclusion and peaceful garden serenity away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, the towers emphasize the relation of the resident to the outside world, to the city. In Corbusier’s plans, this paradox was less apparent as the two forms were not mixed to the extent that they are in Park La Brea, but it still exists. Corbusier’s low housing blocks organized in zig-zagging set-backs are designed so that their inhabitants may retreat into them and, like the residents of Howard’s garden city, forget that they are living in a city at all. Their inner courtyards and distance from the street (as a result of the set-backs) de-emphasize the outside and instead draw their residents inward, towards their centers. The same is true of Park La Brea’s two story garden villas, which, though they face the street, afford their residents the option of escaping the street and the city into quiet, secluded, and nature-filled backyards. The towers, on the other hand, are not predicated upon seclusion and quietude, but instead upon their connection outwards, to the rest of the city. Both Corbusier’s and Park La Brea’s emphasis on the views from the towers underlines this: one lives in a tower with a large windows so that one can appreciate one’s surroundings, not attempt to escape them. While the garden apartments seek to help their residents forget both the city and their relation to it, the towers seek to redefine that relation by placing the residents in a position of apparent power over the city by giving them the ability to survey it from a distance. While these two functions appear paradoxical in terms, they can be reconciled if they are both understood as ways for the resident to reimagine his relationship with his city, recharging himself in his chosen way, so as to be able to go out and do battle with it the next day.

In Park La Brea, this simultaneous emphasis on looking inward and outward is further highlighted by its relation to the city which surrounds it—a relation which neither Howard’s nor Corbusier’s plans had to contend with. Located at the heart of what is now mid-city Los Angeles, one of Park La Brea’s primary draws has always been its proximity to major Los Angeles landmarks and conveniences as well as its surrounding suburbs and cities. In a city whose major defining characteristic is its sprawl, location and proximity were (and still are) primary considerations for Angelenos choosing where to settle. One block north of Wilshire right in the Miracle Mile neighborhood, Park La Brea could hardly be more attractively situated. At the time of its construction, it was in close proximity to May’s Department Store, Hancock Park, the La Brea Tar Pits, the Los Angeles Farmer’s Market, the Gilmore Stadium, the Wilshire Country Club, and Hollywood. The heart of downtown was a straight shot down sixth and, in the opposite direction, Wilshire took one directly to the beach. In the 75 years since MetLife bought the land, the advantages of its location have only increased: today it stands directly across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Grove (one of LA’s biggest and most popular outdoor malls), and Pan Pacific Park, while it is merely a block from both the Petersen Automotive Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Besides this, there are two Trader Joe’s and two Ralph’s (a large Southern Californian grocery store chain) within a three-block radius of the complex, giving a life based out of Park La Brea the possibility of far more “walkability” than most any other part of Los Angeles could offer. This, in combination with the fact that, since it really does sit at the heart of Los Angeles County, even the distant corners of the city and its environs feel attainable, serves to compress Los Angeles for the residents of Park La Brea, creating the illusion of a small town environment—or at least that of a walkable city—right in the heart of one of the most sprawling cities in the world.

This compression was aided by MetLife’s marketing strategies for the park as well, which emphasized its location and subsequent proximity to everywhere that was anywhere in order further the illusion that so long as one lives in Park La Brea, Los Angeles is at one’s finger tips. Advertisements for the park emphasizing these aspects also emphasize the extent to which location and proximity—and hence the relationship of the complex to the city which surrounds it identity (Figure 13).

Fig. 13

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Advertisement for Park La Brea in the LA Times, 1973.

This emphasis on connection to its context, though, is balanced by Park La Brea’s emphasis on seclusion and self-containment. Just as Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine was defined by a hard outline designating where the city ended and country began, Park La Brea is set-off from the city blocks which surround it by an easily identifiable border. When viewed from above, its edges are starkly evident (Figure 14), making it appear an island adrift in Los Angeles’ grid. And yet it also respects that grid and the boundaries its streets set, fitting seamlessly into it: defining itself without rejecting its context.

This illusion of seclusion is underlined by the complex’s relation to the car: within Park La Brea, one has no need for a car and, what’s more, there are no cars in sight. Organized around its interior courtyards and plazas, there is no reason to look out on the cars whizzing past on the surrounding streets, nor is one’s own car anywhere in evidence. The paths connecting the towers are just that: paths (and some of them are even dirt). Park La Brea offers an oasis in the desert of car-dependent Los Angeles to the degree that in the early days of the complex, one turned in one’s car keys upon entering and someone else parked the car. The message is clear: in Park La Brea one can forget the car because one is in a community, an old-fashioned small town.

Fig. 14

Copy of Park LaBrea DW-V2-3-1-ISLA

An aerial view of the Park La Brea complex showing its starkly defined border.

That Park La Brea strives to give itself the feel of a complete community, small and self-contained, is further evident in that in the 90’s, it was closed off to the public. Now to  enter, one must be a resident or the guest of a resident and the gates are watched by guards 24/7. Since this closing off, Park La Brea has become increasingly like a small town in concrete rather than symbolic ways. It boasts cafés, a few stores, a movie theater, gyms, even an art center offering a variety of art classes and a regular comedy show in an on-site private theater. Critics would say that the provision of the concrete amenities of a small town does not a small town make.  However, Park La Brea’s community, largely predicated on its small town feel, is thriving.

In her The Death and Life of American Cities, Jacobs makes a case for variety as the essential ingredient for a vibrant and lively community, neighborhood, or city. She vilifies the likes of Corbusier and his disciples for their belief in efficiency, as “maximum efficiency, or anything approaching it, means standardization” and thus loss of variety and an environment without physical variety can never hope to achieve diversity or vivacity. However, in looking at Park La Brea, it would seem that, at the very least, there are exceptions to Jacobs’ rule. Park La Brea, so clearly related to the utopian ideals of Corbusier’s efficiency-driven, impersonal, standardized city, nevertheless manages to achieve a sense of community and what’s more a community alive with diversity and variety. As Figures 15 and 16 show, Park La Brea, as of 2015, has achieved an unprecedented degree of diversity in both its age and ethnicity demographics. The Los Angeles Times records that diversity in the complex has been steadily rising since the 70’s, when 95% of the residents were caucasian. Now, only 53% of residents speak English at home and the complex’s community is defined by its eclecticism and contrasts. Residents come from all over the country and the world and are often surprised by the sense of community they find. One young Indian mother interviewed by the LA Times was quoted saying that she loved the place because “we bond with each other [here], and that bonding is most important to us,” while in the background a tai-chi class was carried out on the grass, a young Swedish student sat at a café working and drinking an iced mocha, and an African American stand-up comedian practiced his routine nearby. A friend of mine, who lived there between the ages of 3 and 7, told me that “there were always cookies in the lobby of the main building and all the staff knew [her] name.” Standardized surroundings do not, then, necessarily impede variety, nor the creation and cultivation of a vibrant, tight-knit community.

Fig. 15, 16

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Charts comparing the ethnicity and age demographics of Park La Brea to those of Los Angeles, California, and the nation.

Of course, Park La Brea may just be an anomaly thriving in a city of anomalies, helped along by its location and status as the only one of its kind in a city where “projects” are largely a foreign concept. However, anomaly or not, it cannot be denied that Park La Brea “works.” It takes the utopian, perhaps out of touch, designs of Corbusier and Howard and successfully integrates them into a city setting, creating a place which walks the fine line between the cultivation of a strong sense of internal community and a connection to the city around it. Park La Brea may not be a completely literal representation of either Howard’s or Corbusier’s plans, however that their essential tenets are at the heart of Park La Brea is undeniable. So by all accounts, Park La Brea should not “work.” With utopian ideals at its core, it should have stumbled—or even crashed and burned and gone the way of Pruitt-Igoe—long ago. And yet, not only does it maintain, but it continues to get more diverse and more alive as the years progress. It may not entirely achieve Howard and Corbusier’s visions of “shelter[ing] the worker” and “rais[ing] the standard of health and comfort of all true workers of whatever grade,” but it certainly does pay tribute to the idea that both Corbusier and Howard’s plans were not only ways of bettering the city itself, but of improving the lives lived within the city. And perhaps Park La Brea’s continuing success, despite all odds, speaks to a grain of truth at the core of Corbusier’s and Howard’s unattainable utopian ideals. Perhaps they weren’t so out of touch after all.

N.B. WordPress wouldn’t copy my footnotes, so maybe one day I’ll go back and add them in by hand. 


Architecture Resources Group. Garden Apartments of Los Angeles. N.p.: LA Conservancy, 2012. Accessed May 2, 2016.

Barnett, Maggie. “Freshly Hip, Park La Brea is an Urban Oasis.” Los Angeles Times 23 May 2004. N.d. MS. 4 April 2016: <>.

Bordo, Michael D., and Joseph G. Haubrich. “Deep Recessions, Fast Recoveries, and Financial Crises: Evidence from the American Record.”

Display Ad 150. Los Angeles Times; Aug 29, 1971; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. 5 April 2016. <>.

Graham, Wade. Dream Cities. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. Print.

Howard, Ebenezer. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1965. Print. 51.

“Huge Apartment Center to Be Ready Next Year: Parklabrea $13,000,000” Los Angeles Times, 13 Apr. 1950: p. 2.

Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. Trans. Frederick Etchells. London: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960. Print. Pages 51-61.

Melinkoff, Ellen. “A Shelter in the Center of the Universe :  Park La Brea.” Los Angeles Times 8 Aug.1993: n. pag. 4 April 2016: <>.

Park La Brea to Lock Gates This Month Los Angeles Times; Feb 2, 1990; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. 4 April 2016. <>

Stevens, Matt. “Park La Brea apartments’ complex identity.” Los Angeles Times 2 Oct. 2012: n. pag. 4 April 2016: <>.

Stoloff, J.A. US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “A Brief History of Public Housing.” Accessed May 5, 2016.

The Paradox of Modern Subjectivity: Los Angeles’ Park La Brea. Accessed May 3, 2016.

Waiwood, Patricia. “Recession of 1937–38.” Federal Reserve History. Last modified November 22, 2013. Accessed May 5, 2016. DetailView/27.

Wallach, Ruth. Los Angeles Residential Architecture: Modernism Meets Eclecticism. Charleston: The History Press, 2015. Print.


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