Environmental Justice in Los Angeles: A Timeline

This timeline was created by SAJE in 1998 as a tool to facilitate a gathering between 50 public officials and 50 environmental justice advocates sponsored by the City of Los Angeles Environmental Affairs Department. The premise is that today's environmental justice movement was shaped by the intersection of the histories of the environmental movement and civil rights movement. It looks at how these forces impacted the development of Los Angeles.

TheEmancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation  freed the slaves in the Confederate States, then fighting against the Union in the American Civil War.
The Civil Rights Act
This legislation provided the right of access to public accommodations.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite was the first land in California protected by the Federal government, kicking off a National Park System that would protect the country's mountains and meadows.
The Sierra Club
The first environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club, was formed by a group led by John Muir in response to the land plundering of the robber-barons era with mining, timber and railroad companies scarring the Western landscape.
Plessy vs. Ferguson
This ruling allowed segregation under "separate, but equal" conditions.
Exploitation of
Chinese Labor
In the early 1900s Chinese, Japanese and Mexican laborers came to Los Angeles to work on railroad construction and later moved into agriculture. The exploitation of Chinese laborers is credited as a central factor in the profitability of the citrus crops.
Pacific Electric Railway:
  The Red Cars
The red cars, which were owned by Henry Huntington, served Los Angeles from Long Beach to San Fernando, and from Riverside to San Pedro. As new lines spread throughout the L.A. basin, new cities began springing up.
Railroads Import Mexican Labor
In 1906, the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads began moving in two or three carloads of Mexicans a day to work on the railroads. Many also began working in desert mines, chemical plants, cement plants and agriculture. By 1912, 20-30,000 Mexicans lived north of downtown in Sonoratown and in Chavez Ravine.
Block Ordinance
Los Angeles incorporated as a city in 1850. In 1898 the city had a population of 100,000, which grew to over a million by 1930. Although New York City had the first municipal zoning ordinance in the country, L.A. had the first "block ordinance," which divided the city into seven industrial districts and a single residential zone.
Alien Land Bill
Japanese immigrants formed a significant portion of the labor force in Los Angeles and quickly moved from laboring on farms to owning them. In 1913, the California Legislature passed the Alien Land Bill, which limited land leases of agricultural land to three years for Japanese people, and barred further land purchases by Japanese "Aliens." By the 1940s Japanese families owned farms which controlled 90% of certain crops.
Owens River Valley
Water was central to the development of Los Angeles. Originally publicly owned, the L.A. water system was operated by a private company between 1868 and 1898. After a fierce political battle, the City took back control and set up the Water District, headed by William Mulholland. Owens River Aqueduct, built in 1913, brought water from Inyo County, 250 miles away. The Aqueduct terminus ended up in the San Fernando Valley, even though L.A. taxpayers voted for bonds to build the project. As a result the City of Los Angeles ended up annexing 100,000 acres of the Valley. Farmers in the Owens River Valley were left devastated by the diversion of their water, and in the last stages of their protests, ran a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times that read "We, the farming community of Owens Valley, being about to die, salute you."
"L.A. is a Wonderful Place."
--W.E.B. DuBois


Until the 1920s, Blacks, who were a tiny portion (2%) of Los Angeles's population, experienced relatively less racial discrimination than Blacks in other cities, partly due to the larger Asian and Mexican populations who absorbed a lot of violent prejudice. In fact, in 1913, W.E.B. DuBois described L.A. as a "wonderful place." By then, Blacks, living in an enclave on Central Avenue and in Mud Town (later called Watts), lived in single family homes, one-third of which were owner-occupied.


Restrictive Covenants
Los Angeles established a national legal precedent for exclusionary zoning - zoning that is exclusively for upscale single-family residents. With these came homeowners' associations, such as the Los Feliz Improvement Association (established 1916), as well as deed restrictions. Private restrictions normally included such provisions as minimum required costs for home construction and exclusion of all non-Caucasians (sometimes non-Christians) from occupancy, except as domestic servants. By World War I, deed restrictions (also called "restrictive covenants") were enacted as private Jim Crow legislation and enforced by homeowners' associations. This helped to build a "white wall" around Central Avenue. Where subdivisions did not already have deed restrictions, white homeowners formed protective associations to create racially specified "block restrictions." By the 1920s, 95% of L.A.'s housing stock was off-limits to Blacks and Asians.
Industrial L.A.


By 1935, Los Angeles (with Firestone, Goodyear and Goodrich) was second to Akron, OH in rubber production. With G.M., Chrysler, Ford and Studebaker, it was second to Detroit in auto production. Black people were mostly denied access to these high-wage industrial jobs. Industrial conversion took a lot of Black homes. With housing restrictions based on race, people were left with very few options for places to live. In fact, there was a 98% occupancy rate in South Central Los Angeles.


Segregation In Housing
In the 1920s and '30s, racial distinctions in housing became institutionalized in the real estate business and in public policy. Appraisers and underwriters included racial composition of the surrounding neighborhood as an appropriate element in determining property values, arguing that they were reduced by certain races. Industry notables such as Homer Hoyte and Frederick Bradford wrote in 1931, "There is one difference in people, namely race, that can result in very rapid decline, and usually such decline can be partially avoided by segregation." Such principles were incorporated into instructional materials of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers and, until the end of the 1960s, the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers.

Hoyte was later hired to write the underwriting standards for the Federal Housing Administration, the agency which preceded the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Arguing that stable neighborhoods required "like people living with like," the agency required restrictive covenants in all the housing developments with which it was involved.


Auto Club Promotes a Freeway System
The Automobile Club proposed a 400-mile freeway network with a projected price tag of $800 million.
Colorado River Aqueduct
In order to support the expansion of Los Angeles, the city went to even greater lengths to secure a water supply.
Black Migration to L.A.


During the post-war years, the Black population in Los Angeles grew to eight times its original size (compared to increases of only two-and-one-half times in New York, and three times in Detroit). This is when housing segregation took full force in L.A. In the '40s L.A. became the nation's leading center for legal challenges to restrictive covenants, which the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional. L.A. homeowners persisted with their own lawsuits, while real estate developers promoted white flight to the San Fernando Valley, where suburban developers continued to exclude Blacks, Latinos and Asians.

Black home ownership declined severely, and although the racial covenants had been removed, the institutionalization of segregation was concretized. In 1960, only 20,000 of over 300,000 Blacks lived outside South Central L.A.  Reversing Du Bois' original admiration for Black opportunity in 1913, a Black businessman from the South commented in 1962: "This is the most segregated city I have ever known."


First Freeways Built


In 1943 the first Los Angeles freeway was opened between Downtown L.A. and Pasadena. A second freeway was opened in 1947, linking Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley.


Japanese Internment: Ultimate Segregation


Executive Order 9066 moved 40,000 Japanese out of L.A. County—mostly out of Little Tokyo—into internment camps. Two-thirds of those interned were born in the United States. Blacks, pressured for housing, moved into Little Tokyo.


Black Wednesday Smog Attack


Los Angeles's first political environmental event. On July 26, 1943, a brown cloud formed over L.A. reducing visibility to a three-block area and causing people to cough, sneeze and complain of severe eye irritation. All the local papers reported a "gas attack." The next day, county officials pointed a finger at Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Street Plant, which manufactured an ingredient in synthetic rubber, used in war production. Public pressure and protests shut the plant down, but the "gas attacks" persisted. Los Angeles County appointed a Smoke and Fumes Commission to study the problem.


First Air Quality
The Air Pollution Control Director of Los Angeles County banned emissions of dense smoke. Backyard trash burning was prohibited.
Veterans' Housing Crisis


By 1945, 70,000 people were living in public housing in Los Angeles. Returning veterans caused a huge housing crisis. Real estate developers opposed the expansion of public housing. "Fox Holes in 1945 - Rat Holes in 1947" was written on signs at a demonstration of 1,500 veterans who occupied MacArthur Park.

At the same time, 10,000 units of integrated public housing were proposed for Chavez Ravine. In a highly political battle connected to the 1955 Mayoral election, the plan was condemned as Communist, and Dodger Stadium was built in its place instead.

L.A. Adopts a
Comprehensive Zoning
This ordinance anticipated a city of 10 million people.
Media Campaign on Smog
The Los Angeles Times hired an air pollution expert named Raymond Tucker and launched a campaign about smog. Los Angeles County made recommendations for restrictions, but the Chamber of Commerce and businesses protested.
L.A. County Air Pollution Control District
This new district was created by the California State legislature.
Super Smog Attack


In October 1954, Los Angeles was hit by another massive smog attack, purportedly worse than 1943. Planes had to be diverted from the airport; children stayed home from school. Citizens were outraged that seven years of pollution control had yielded no results. The League of Women Voters organized demonstrations. As a result, the Director of the Pollution Control District was fired.

Shortly thereafter, district studies under a new director revealed that two-thirds of the smog was caused by the automobile, combined with L.A.'s unique atmospheric conditions. Public protest died down almost overnight.

[By the early 1970s, L.A. was discharging 26.2 million pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere each day. Carbon monoxide from cars and trucks accounted for 18.2 million pounds.]


Federal Civil Rights Laws


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed all Americans equal access to employment and public accommodations, regardless of race, creed, color, sex or national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 , in addition to the 24th Amendment to the Constitution , abolished the poll tax. The Fair Housing Act passed in 1968.


R.I.P.: Red Car
With the demise of the Red Car in the early 1960s, the automobile had become de facto King in Los Angeles.
Silent Spring


A watershed in Environmental politics. Rachel Carsona marine biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, wrote Silent Spring , a book about the link between the pesticide DDT and environmental degradation. The book received national attention, including a press conference with President Kennedy and Congressional hearings. CBS aired a TV show on the issue even after two sponsors withdrew because of subject matter. Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, pre-dating later connections made between DDT and breast cancer.


Proposition 14
The civil rights movement's efforts to integrate met legislative challenges that protected segregation. In California, Proposition 14, a statewide ballot initiative to repeal the Rumford Fair Housing Act (which prevented racial discrimination in sale of homes), passed with two-thirds of the statewide vote. Later, Prop 14 was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
L.A. School Desegregation
On August 1, 1963, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint on behalf of Black and Latino parents to integrate Southgate High school (all white) and Jordan High School (all Black). Located 1.5 miles from each other, the campuses could have easily been integrated by redrawing school boundaries. This lawsuit lasted for 13 years, and was settled in 1976.

In 1970, fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, 26% of Mississippi's Black children and 45% of South Carolina's Black children were in predominantly white schools; but only 6% of Los Angeles's Black children were integrated. The judge in the school desegregation case was cited in a 1976 HUD study that showed that L.A. had the most segregated school district in the country. Mandatory integration generated white flight and integration programs resulted in declining white enrollment in the public schools. Current white enrollment in the L.A. United School District is approximately 15%.

Title VI of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964
The regulations of this Act prohibit recipients of Federal funds from "intentional discrimination" and "adverse disparate impact discrimination" on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin. The statute became an important environmental justice tool in the 1990's.
Watts Riots
In 1965 Black unemployment in the U.S. was 9%, but unemployment in Watts was 31%. Los Angeles joined the ranks of cities all over the country - Newark, New York, Las Vegas, Detroit - where riots had broken out over political and social issues. Anti-poverty funds were made available by the Federal Government as a part of the solution, but L.A. Mayor Samuel Yorty all but refused them. L.A. anti-poverty politics were so severe that Martin Luther King, Jr. came to L.A. in 1965 to call on the city to increase the representation of minority and poor citizens on the anti-poverty board.
Environmental Defense Fund
Four scientists alarmed at the impact of DDT on wildlife joined with an attorney to form the Environmental Defense FundEDF was the first group to take scientific evidence into courts to achieve environmental goals.
National Environmental
Policy Act
This statute requires an environmental impact statement to be completed and alternatives to be proposed before a project with potential environmental impacts can be implemented.
California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
This Act required full disclosure of the environmental impacts of development projects whenever discretion was used in a project. The law was originally established to cover public projects, where public discretion in decision-making is very clear. But a 1972 lawsuit showed that public discretion was used in various parts of the decision-making process, including plan check. Since then, CEQA - a procedural law that generates a process of disclosure and public input - has applied to public and privately-owned projects.
Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)
Fought for by health and safety activists in the Oil Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW), United Auto Workers, and Miners Unions, OSHA generated support for sufferers from black lung disease and particularly for unionized workers. However, the Act explicitly did not cover farm workers, and did not provide help to non-unionized workers facing threats like brown lung in the textile factories.
Clean Air Act
The purpose of the law is to allow EPA to set limits on how much of a pollutant can be in the air anywhere in the United States, so that all Americans can have basic health and environmental protections.
L.A.'s Changing
Major demographic changes fundamentally alter the complexion of Los Angeles. L.A. is transformed from a predominantly White city into a multicultural metropolis by the influx of Hispanics and Asians.

Racial and Ethnic Demographic Composition of Los Angeles
Percentage of
total population
White Black Hispanic Asian
1970 71 11 15 3
2000 31 10 44 15
California Coastal Act
Passed by initiative, this  Act protects the coast from over-development and privatization.
Agricultural Chemical Use
Throughout this decade, environmental groups and professional advocates (scientists and lawyers) took on corporations and pushed environmental legislation. However, both the environmental community and the Environmental Protection Agency emphasized consumer safety over farmworker safety, and agricultural workers continued to be at risk.
Centers Concept


Moving away from the total growth model of the 1946 zoning ordinance which anticipated a city of 10 million people, the Centers Concept concentrated high density commercial and residential zoning in 35 centers around the city, drastically reducing density in single family neighborhoods. The Planning Department had a master plan that reduced the density permitted in residential neighborhoods, developed with heavy citizen participation. Although the plan was adopted, no money was allocated to implement the plan so the zoning never changed and high density developments continued.

This downzoning movement was not the top priority in all parts of the city. Not in East L.A., not in South L.A., not in Pacoima, not in working class neighborhoods.


Bus Riders Sue Los Angeles Rapid Transit District (RTD)
The Coalition for Economic Survival sued the RTD for heavily subsidizing relatively empty commuter buses from Malibu to downtown while heavily-used inner city buses were underscheduled and overcrowded.
Proposition 13


Proposition 13 was a California ballot initiative which drastically cut taxes on homeowners, much to the detriment of schools and other government services. Proposition 98 later restored minimum funding for schools in California.


Industrial Plant Closures


Only 15-20 years after minorities got into Los Angeles's best-paying blue collar jobs, devastating plant closures hit the city. By 1988 not one of the auto, rubber or steel plants was left standing.


Hillside Federation Lawsuit


The Hillside Federation - Los Angeles's oldest community-planning organization - sued the city and won, and the city came under a court order in 1985, at which time one-third of the city's zoning was inconsistent with the plan.


Proposition U
Proposition U, a ballot initiative to reduce the levels of density in Los Angeles, passed with 69% of the vote.
"Toxic Wastes and Race
in the U.S."
The Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ published a report "Toxic Wastes and Race in the U.S.," showing that race, even more than income level, is the crucial factor shared by communities exposed to toxic waste.
Mothers of East LA (MELA) and Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles (CCSCLA) Stop Incinerators
South Central and East L.A., devastated by plant closures, were now sites for "economic development" projects like the Los Angeles City Energy Recovery (LANCER) plant, prisons, and toxic incinerators. MELA successfully combatted construction of a $29 million incinerator designed to burn 125,000 pounds of toxic wastes per day. South Central fought the LANCER project and won even after land had been taken by eminent domain and bonds had been sold for the project. These community organizations became part of a national movement for Environmental Justice.
Hyperion Sewage Plant Overflows
Overflows resulted in a sewer moratorium. (Thirty other cities use the system.)
"Big 10" Letter


A number of grassroots environmental justice groups jointly wrote to the "Big Ten" mainstream environmental groups, challenging their historic lack of attention to the special needs and interests of people of color and low income populations. In particular, the Big Ten Letter stressed the need for environmental groups to reflect the diversity of the communities they need to serve.


People of Color
Environmental Summit
First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington, D.C.
EPA Office of Environmental Justice
This Federal government office was established to work specifically on issues of environmental degradation as they affect minority and low-income populations.
L.A. Civil Unrest


After five days of civil unrest and national attention, communities across Los Angeles began to rebuild their neighborhoods. What should be rebuilt was a subject of heavy debate and many people worked to replace former liquor stores and pawn shops with laundromats and other needed services.


President Clinton Signs Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice


The Order instructed Federal agencies to abolish and prevent policies that led to a disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards to low-income communities of color.

Bus Riders Sue MTA


The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., sued the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on the grounds that MTA operates separate and unequal bus and rail systems that discriminate against communities of color and low income communities, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. MTA settled the case in 1996 when it agreed to invest over one billion dollars in the bus system over the next ten years, making it the largest civil rights case ever in terms of the dollar value of the settlement. [See Transportation Equity in Los Angeles: The MTA and Beyond .]


LAAQMD Environmental Justice Plan
The Los Angeles Air Quality Management District recognized environmental justice as an issue and adopted a 10-point plan of action.
21st Century


Los Angeles encompasses the issues that lie at the intersection of the environment, race and ethnicity, and class. Los Angeles is synonymous with freeways, congestion, sprawl, dirty air, water wars, segregation, White flight, race riots, and the destruction of wildlife and the natural environment. Los Angeles offers us a unique opportunity to work on the urban environment as an ecosystem that needs as much attention as wilderness areas, endangered species, climate change and oceans.

The wave of demographic changes that has swept over Los Angeles over the last 30 years will sweep the rest of the country in the decades to come. In social terms, contemporary L.A. is a city split by contradictions of wealth and poverty, a glittering First World metropolis built on a polyglot Third World substructure. The urban poverty core in Los Angeles is 92% people of color. Sixty-two percent are Latinos. Forty-three percent speak little or no English. Thirty-eight percent live in poverty, compared to 18% for the county as a whole.

Economically, Los Angeles is an emerging world capital that is undergoing transformation from traditional manufacturing to a service and information economy. Politically, Los Angeles is in the midst of a fundamental realignment as old elites give way to place- and race-based coalitions. L.A. is the homeless capital of the United States. It is the scene of this century's worst urban riots - in 1965 and again in 1992. What is past in Los Angeles is prologue for the rest of the country.

In the environmental justice context, we can promote equal access to public resources, economic vitality, and a healthy environment. We can promote full and fair participation by all communities, including communities of color and low income communities, in the decisions that affect people's lives. Los Angeles shows what we can do if we work together to save our home. Los Angeles also illustrates what can go wrong if we do not.



Many thanks to:

Dace Taub
USC Regional History Collection

Carolyn Cole
Los Angeles Central Library Photo Archives