Los Angeles–Long Beach

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Los Angeles is the largest urban center in western North America and the continent's leading contender for the title "Gateway to the Pacific Rim." Propelled by growing U.S. trade with East Asia and early adoption of containerization, the region's ports on San Pedro Bay (Los Angeles and Long Beach) are now the busiest harbor in the nation and the third busiest in the world. Currently exports include high-tech equipment, industrial machinery, aircraft, and chemicals. Leading imports (three-quarters arriving from the Pacific Rim) are electronics, passenger vehicles, apparel, footwear, and toys.

The region's rise as a trading center has been both rapid and remarkable. Beginning as a sleepy village in 1781, Los Angeles grew from a population of 1,610 people in 1850 to 102,000 in 1900 (128,000 in the greater metropolitan area) and 3.7 million in 2000 (8.7 million in the greater metropolitan area). This explosive growth is remarkable, because Los Angeles initially possessed neither adequate water supplies to support a large population nor even a natural harbor. It appeared to be no match for such rivals as San Diego, San Francisco, or Seattle in the contest for the China trade.

Many credit the region's rise to strong-willed promoters who pushed aggressively for public infrastructure investments in the decades around 1900. After winning the "Great Free-Harbor Fight" against the opposition from the Southern Pacific Railroad which advocated building a port at a different location that was under its own control. In 1897, the Los Angeles business community induced the Army Corp of Engineers to construct a breakwater at San Pedro Bay and dredge an artificial harbor to be publicly controlled. This viewpoint, which emphasizes the region's constructed character, downplays its natural advantages—for example, access to shorter, less mountainous transportation routes to the eastern United States.

Since 1900, four staples have dominated the region's international trade. The first and the most durable is tourist services. From early on, travelers have sought the region's "year-round climate." Today they come for its scenery, cultural attractions, and amusement parks (e.g., Disneyland, which opened in 1955). The second staple is petroleum, first discovered in Los Angeles in 1895. The third is oil. Oil became the region's number one export in the interwar period due to the opening of several major fields locally and the accessibility of the Panama Canal. After the early 1930s, Los Angeles also became a major production and export center for aircraft. This resulted from the vanguard role of its leading firms—Douglas, Lockheed, and Northrop—in developing the modern airliner. Aviation and later aerospace industries drove much of Southern California's growth from World War II to the end of the Cold War in the later twentieth century.

The fourth major export was entertainment. The initial impetus came in the 1910s, as pioneering filmmakers moved west to escape Edison's patent collectors. The region's varied landscapes and climate, and the well-defined contrast between light and shadow (in the era before heavy smog), were also attractive. By 1929, "Hollywood USA" became a trademark recognized around the world. Television shifted west in the 1950s. From the 1930s on, the entertainment sector fostered a local apparel industry, exporting products ranging from high-fashion to western wear (Levis) to sportswear and outdoor clothing. More generally, the entertainment industry exported the "California Dream" of living a freer, more casual "good life" around the globe.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Baltimore; Boston; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Chambers of Commerce; Charleston; Containerization; Drugs, Illicit; Empire, Spanish; Free Ports; Harbors;New Orleans;Newport;New York;Petroleum;Philadelphia;Port Cities;Salem;San Francisco–Oakland;Shipbuilding.


Erie, Steven P. Globalizing L.A.: Trade, Infrastructure, and Regional Development. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Rhode, Paul W. The Evolution of California Manufacturing. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2001.

Paul Rhode

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Los Angeles–Long Beach

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Los Angeles–Long Beach