Friday, September 16, 2011

Native Month: El Aliso - The Ancient Center Of Los Angeles

Kissing like a bandit, stealing time,
underneath the sycamore tree...

Much has been said about Los Angeles "not having a center." Back in 2008, while singlehandedly settling the whole Westside vs. so-called Eastside geographical dichotomy, The Militant did come to the conclusion that Los Angeles indeed has a center.
Many of you know that Los Angeles started out as El Pueblo de Nuestra SeƱora de la Reina de los Angeles del Rio Porciuncula. That pueblo was founded on the site of a Tongva village called Yangna, or Place of the Poison Oak (That oak is Poiiiisonnnnn!). Some of you are already aware of Yangna, though a few people out there have the concept all messed up.

At the center of Yangna was a large, six-story sycamore tree that the Pobladores called "El Aliso." But to the native villagers of Yangna, it was no ordinary tree. It was a sacred site where chiefs of neaby villages would convene.

Over time, as the settlement grew, the Tongva were kicked out and their once-great village reduced to parcel property. In the 1830s, the land was bought by a Frenchman named Jean Louis Vignes, who used part of it as a vineyard. Name sounds familiar? You may or may not have been on the street that bears his name.

Here's a pic of the actual El Aliso tree
(note the "Philadelphia" in the lower right corner for the brewery)
Much thanks and props to militant reader Natalie Manarino for sending this to The Militant!

In 1892s, the tree was unceremoniously cut down for firewood to make more room for the Philadelphia brewery (damn those East Coasters...) which eventually became the Maier Brewing Company, and later Brew 102. The tree, which survived floods and droughts, was documented to have about 400 annual rings on it - when Columbus arrived from Europe, this tree was but a seed in the ground.

The early City planners were nice enough to name a street after the sacred Sycamore. The exact location of the tree was found to be in the Alameda on/off ramp for the 101 Freeway, just south of the train platforms of Union Station:

Next time you drive on the 101, ride on the (M) Gold Line on the overpass bridge or even visit that nearby strip club, take a moment to pay your respects to the Tongva people who once lived for millenia in the village of Yangna - The Los Angeles before Los Angeles.


bgfa said...

Thanks Militant for this post. I found out about this site a few years ago and whenever I pass by (which is frequently) it has taken on real meaning and presence for me. There is some good documentation of this site in John Crandell's book Visions of Downtown LA.

jessielynn said...

Thank you for the BBD and Terence Trent Darby references in the post. I now have both songs in my head. Love it!

Militant Angeleno said...

Jessielynn: Thanks. The Militant will never reveal his age...but can probably figure it out :)

Serena said...

Thanks, Militant! I have a bit of additional info for you. My Great-Great Grandfather was George Zobelein - and unlike his East Coast business partners, he was NOT in favor of cutting down El Aliso. Here's an excerpt from an LA Times article:

August 16, 1895 : “An Old Landmark Gone” - The old aliso (sycamore tree) was on the site of the Maier & Zobelein Brewery. It was a landmark from time immemorial when Los Angeles was a mere pueblo. It had been venerated by the local Indians for generations as a guide point and was said to have provided shade for the early Spanish settlers and a campground for General Fremont when he wrested California from the Mexicans. For some years Maier had wanted to remove the tree in order to expand the brewery. Zobelein was very emotional about the old landmark and succeeded at one point in having the brewery built around it. Eventually, branches fell and damaged a building. Finally the old tree died. Maier said, “That tree has cost us already about $8,000 all on account of Mr. Zobelein's sentiment.” Finally it was chopped down. Various persons took turns, but “Mr. Zobelein has felt too mournful over the fate of his old pet to strike any of its death blows.”

It's no surprise that he later left the Maier partnership to become owner of LA Brewing Co. I am proud to be his descendant, and the 4th generation to be born in the City of Angels.

Serena Zobelein Farrell

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for writing about this tree. I used to live around the corner from that off-ramp, and I walked to El Pueblo and Chinatown through there all the time- I had no idea! I also had no idea that El Pueblo was previously a Tongva village. Shame on me, I'm an archaeologist. Thanks again for sharing. And the historic photo is amazing!

tovangar2 said...

The site of El Aliso is not lost.

See here:

and here:

An archaeological survey needs to be done and the site then turned into a park. Please help, I don't know where to start.

tovangar2 said...

Serena Zobelein Farrell: I am VERY pleased to "meet" you. Thanks so much for your post.

Serena Zobelein Farrell said...

You're very welcome, and nice to "meet" you as well. In case you're interested, the Zobelein family has a family history website at I haven't had a chance to update it in a while, but it's got some interesting stuff on it. Hope all is well.

Serena Zobelein Farrell

Gato Verde said...

As I understand it, the tree was doing fine until it underwent a radical pruning in order to accommodate the brewery buildings that would surround it.

Anonymous said...

I’m going to check that book out, thanks.