A Brief History of Lincoln Heights, the Original East L.A.

Children run across Broadway during the Lincoln Heights Christmas Parade.
Children run across Broadway during the Lincoln Heights Christmas Parade.

When the Eastside neighborhood of Lincoln Heights became the first suburb of Los Angeles in 1873, its name was East L.A. The man credited as the neighborhood's founder was a former Army surgeon named Dr. John Strother Griffin, who, alongside General Stephen W. Kearny, witnessed the conquest of El Pueblo de Los Ángeles in 1847.

“Dr. Griffin’s first sight of Los Angeles whetted his desire to settle down after his adventurous army life and enjoy the sweets of California contentment,” according to an 1898 obituary printed in the L.A. Times.

Dr. Griffin purchased 2,000 acres east of downtown; his cattle "wore paths where Downey Avenue and Main Street now run, and his sheep browsed all over East Los Angeles and up on the hills beyond," according to his obituary.

Working with his nephew, Hancock M. Johnston, Dr. Griffin divided up tracts of pasture beside the river into uniform lots for single-family homes, advertising them as "Splendid Homesteads for All!" The pair planned the streets, avenues and parks and sold the land little by little mostly to workmen seeking homes close to the industry springing up along the L.A. River. Johnston built one of the city’s earliest streetcar lines in 1876 to connect the East Los Angeles suburb with downtown.

Two decades after Griffin's death, 1,000 residents voted in 1919 to change the neighborhood's name in honor of President Lincoln — whom Dr. Griffin and Johnston had considered a "despot" and "tyrant." Albert Sidney Johnston, Dr. Griffin's a brother-in-law and Hancock M. Johnson's father, was the predecessor to Robert E. Lee as commanding general of the Confederate Army and died in the saddle at the Battle of Shiloh.

Today, Lincoln Heights is bounded by the hills of Montecito and El Sereno to the north and east, Mission Road to the south and the L.A. River to the west.

Chicano Time Trip, a mural on the East West Bank building at Broadway and Daly
Chicano Time Trip, a mural on the East West Bank building at Broadway and Daly

Rail yards and industry came swiftly to the southern edge of Lincoln Heights at the turn of the 20th century, drawing immigrant laborers in nearby industry to the modest, one-story homes that sprang up in the area's historic core. One author called Lincoln Heights “the smelly and noisy backstage work of the city.”

Within a decade of its founding, Lincoln Heights became what the Los Angeles Conservancy calls the Ellis Island of Los Angeles — home to successive waves of Anglo, Irish, German, Yugoslavian and Italian immigrants. The Italians established a Little Sicily there in the early 1900s. When Chinatown was founded in the 1930s, a Chinese community formed in Lincoln Heights, where it exists to this day. For the past several decades, the neighborhood's residents have been majority Mexican, and according to a reference librarian at the Lincoln Heights Library, the newest batch of arrivals is from Vietnam.

Lincoln Heights once was popular as a weekend getaway for Angelenos. Lincoln Park, one of the city's earliest parks, was a popular draw. Conceived as a kind of mirror image to MacArthur Park in Westlake, Lincoln Park has an 8-acre, man-made lake that at one point rented boats to visitors.

"The park and its environs had begun to resemble a prototypical theme park," KCET reports. "Privately owned tourist attractions — including an alligator farm, ostrich farm, the Selig (Luna Park) Zoo, a hot sulphur bathworks and an Indian village — clustered around the public park grounds, drawing tourists and local residents alike to the once-neglected land." Today the park is home to an extensive skate park.

The Lincoln Heights Jail was decommissioned in 1965 and designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by the city in 1993.
The Lincoln Heights Jail was decommissioned in 1965 and designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by the city in 1993.

Notwithstanding the industrial boom along the river, the area has retained its charm. From atop a steep bluff, an observer can see past the rail yards, factories and warehouses to a commanding and unbroken view of the city skyline. The median price for a home in that part of the neighborhood is the highest in Lincoln Heights.

"What makes the neighborhood interesting is the variety of architectural buildings," says E. Michael Diaz, a former Los Angeles Conservancy board member and a past commissioner of the Los Angeles Historical Records & Landmarks Commission, who lives in Lincoln Heights. "It's a mix of Victorian, some art deco, some modern. It's that eclectic mix of buildings that makes it interesting."

At the eastern end of the neighborhood is the historic Lincoln Heights Jail. Built in 1931, the five-story jail designed in the art deco style was decommissioned in 1965 and designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by the city in 1993. It has served as a set for movies and music videos, including the gym sequence of American History X, the boiler-room scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street and Lady Gaga's video for "Telephone Line," according to Tom Explores LA.

The Lemberger-Sigler House, an example of the Queen Anne style of Victorian-era architecture, is part of the Lincoln Heights Historic Preservation Zone.
The Lemberger-Sigler House, an example of the Queen Anne style of Victorian-era architecture, is part of the Lincoln Heights Historic Preservation Zone.

The city has taken steps recently to beautify and redevelop L.A.'s Eastside, including Lincoln Heights. Last month, the city broke ground on Albion Riverside Park, a triangle-shaped site that was formerly a Ross Swiss Dairy distribution center. The state also conducted a $6 million environmental cleanup on the site; when the park is completed, it will offer six acres of playing fields, green space and walkways next to the L.A. River.

The business district of Lincoln Heights runs along North Broadway, which links the neighborhood to Chinatown via the 1910 Buena Vista–Broadway Bridge. Today, North Broadway is lined with modest restaurants, shops and a supermarket, many of which have names in Spanish. Mural art from the Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s is the eye-catching cultural identity marker of the North Broadway corridor. A prime example is the mural Chicano Time Trip on the East West Bank building at Broadway and Daly.

Lincoln High School was an important focal point for the East L.A. "Blow-Outs" of 1968, walkouts involving thousands of Mexican-American students protesting for civil rights. The Church of the Epiphany hosted regular meetings of Chicano activists including the Brown Berets, and at one point the church basement housed the printing press for La Raza, the movement's newspaper.

Plaza de la Raza Cultural Center for the Arts & Education is a cultural landmark offering affordable after-school arts education programs to the Eastside neighborhoods. It has operated since 1970 from a boathouse in Lincoln Park — part of the land that Dr. Griffin sold to the city.


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