The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1993, Volume 39, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

An End and a Beginning: The South Coast and Los Angeles, 1850-1887.

By By Joseph S. O’Flaherty. Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1992, 2nd Edition. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 200 pages. $24.95.

Those Powerful Years: The South Coast and Los Angeles, 1887- 1917.

By Joseph S. O’Flaherty. Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1992, 2nd Edition. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 315 pages. $29.95.

Reviewed by M. Guy Bishop, Whittier, California. Dr. Bishop, the author of scholarly articles on California and the West, has taught California history at Riverside College, Cypress College, Citrus College, and most recently at the University of Southern California.

An End and a Beginning and Those Powerful Years by Joseph S. O’Flaherty were first published in 1972 and 1978 respectively. Between the two volumes one finds a readable narrative history of Los Angeles and much of Southern California for the seven decades between California statehood and the outbreak of United States’ involvement in the First World War. Former University of Southern California professor and noted regional historian Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. has observed in his preface to each volume, “The South Coast and Los Angeles is without peer in the subject field for the decades it covers.”

Within these two volumes O’Flaherty treats well known topics such as Americanization of Alta California in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War; the rise to prominence of such notables in early Los Angeles history as Abel Stearns, Phineas Banning, and John G. Downey; events of importance to the growth of the region like the real estate boom of the 1880s or the harbor fight later in that decade. Mixing his gift as a writer with a knack for employing timely anecdotes, the author has an uncanny ability to keep his reader hungering for more — even if it is often a familiar story with a well known ending.

While the focus of O’Flaherty’s work centers upon Los Angeles, San Diego and other locations in the Southland are not totally overlooked. He adroitly observes in Those Powerful Years just how incredible it must have seemed to San Diegans, who were blessed with an excellent natural harbor, that “a shallow, saltwater lagoon in back of San Pedro” would be developed by generous federal handouts while their port went wanting (p. 38). But then, in the author’s view, nothing ever went right for San Diego. While their neighbor to the north reaped the benefits of the land speculation of the eighties, San Diego was forced to watch “sourly and dispiritedly” on the sidelines. But, perhaps, if the author’s study had continued into the late twentieth-century it might have shown a different perspective on the development of the two cities.

While these two books offer an exciting account of what the author chooses to call the South Coast, some readers might yearn for deeper research and the use of current historical models to evaluate questions about race, gender, or socio-economic development to name a few possibilities. Approaches currently in vogue like the “new social history” or its counterparts in urban and Western history seem glaringly absent in the midst of O’Flaherty’s catchy anecdotes and narrative history. This does not make his studies of the South Coast any less valuable or less interesting to read, but it can leave the reader wishing for more interpretive material.

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