the transformative power of live theater


90024: University Students and Changes in Westwood

Ryan McRee

Westwood is a neighborhood on the Westside of Los Angeles bordered by Century City, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and the I-405 Freeway. The area is primarily known as the location of the University of California, Los Angeles campus and the Westwood Village commercial district. The area is also home to “Tehrangeles,” or “Little Persia,” and part of Holmby Hills, a wealthy residential neighborhood.

The area was developed on land owned by Arthur Letts, founder of the Broadway and Bullock’s department stores, called Wolfskill Ranch. Letts left the land to his son-in-law, Harold Janss, who through the Janss Investment Company started developing the area and building residences. In addition to Westwood, Harold and his brother Edwin Janss Sr. also developed Van Nuys and Canoga Park. Upon developing the land, the brothers lobbied the city of Los Angeles to choose the area for the new campus of the University of California, Southern Branch, which had been operating on Vermont Avenue in Hollywood. In 1927 new ground was broken for the Westwood Campus, and the school changed its name to the University of California at Los Angeles. The original campus buildings consisted of what are now known as Powell Library, Royce Hall, Renee and David Kaplan Hall, and Haines Hall. The first undergraduate classes were held on the new campus in 1929 with 5,500 students (that same year the Bruin and Trojan football teams played for the first time, the Bruins losing 76-0).

1929 also marked the opening of Westwood Village, which at the time was only the second shopping district of its size in the U.S. It was considered one of the nation’s best-planned and most beautiful commercial districts, and opened with 34 businesses that the Janss brothers had attracted to the new development. In ten years, despite the effects of the Great Depression, the area boasted 452 businesses. The Geffen Playhouse was one of the first structures in Westwood, built in 1929 for students and alumni of UCLA. The Fox Theatre (today known as the Regency Village Theatre) opened in August of 1931. It became the most recognizable landmark in Westwood, and became famous for the many Hollywood movie premieres that would be held there.

Although the Westwood Village did not seem to feel the effects of the Depression, the economic turmoil felt around the country had sparked a wave of political activity at nearby UCLA. In 1934 Provost Ernest Moore declared the school “the worst hotbed of communism in the U.S.,” and suspended members of the student government who had allegedly participated in revolutionary activities with the National Student League, a known Communist organization. A protest of over 3,000 students in Royce Quad pressured University President Robert Sproul to reinstate the students. That same year, William Andrews Clark Jr. left to the university the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, a grounds and facility located in the West Adams neighborhood housing an impressive collection of English literature manuscripts and materials, allowing UCLA to significantly expand its graduate programs.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the campus became active in the war effort. A University War Council was established, and UCLA became a major center for the training of special units and officers. Fraternity houses were used as cadets’ quarters, and students participated in service activities such as blood drives, war bond sales, scraps collections, and produce planting and harvesting. UCLA was also involved in the purchase and delivery of materials and supplies necessary for the Manhattan Project, which was being developed in New Mexico under a contract with the UC system. Male enrollment in the school was halved the year after the war, and 260 students, faculty, and alumni were killed. Once the war drew to a close, the G.I. Bill caused a boom in enrollment, which was followed by a surge in construction activity. By 1947, 43% of the student body were veterans, and enrollment totals quickly reached an all-time high.

The Red Scare of the 40s and 50s stirred up more political conflict on the UCLA campus. When the Regents of the UC System adopted a policy requiring faculty and staff to swear a loyalty oath disavowing membership in the Communist Party, 98 faculty members across campuses were dismissed for non-compliance. In 1950, Regents installed Provost Raymond B. Allen with the hope that he would purge Communism from the campus. This divide between conservative administration and “radical” faculty and students continued into the 60s, and escalated during the Vietnam War. At the same time that basketball coach John Wooden was earning record-breaking championship titles for the school, students were out protesting student recruitment by Dow Chemical, the company that developed Napalm. It was a divisive time for the campus. In January 1969, two students who were members of the Black Panther Party were killed by members of a rival Black power group; their conflict was later found to have been instigated by FBI agents who had infiltrated both groups. Philosophy professor Angela Davis was fired in 1969 for openly identifying as a Communist, and 2,000 students attended her first lecture in Royce Hall’s auditorium despite the fact that the university had removed credit from the class.

When student protestors were fired upon by the National Guard in response to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, hundreds of student protestors marched on UCLA’s campus. Vandalism and continued unrest prompted the UC Chancellor to declare a state of emergency and summon the LAPD to quell the demonstration—74 were arrested. Continued protests led California Governor Ronald Reagan to shut down the state’s colleges and universities for the first time in history.

Meanwhile, around campus the construction of the I-405 and urban developments along Wilshire Boulevard brought even more activity to Westwood Village. In the 1960s through the 1980s the nightlife industry largely overtook community retail stores and entertainment venues such as movie theatres continued to spring up around the area. The dominance of the theatres led to massive crowds in the Village, sometimes to the detriment of businesses. A series of events in the 80s changed Westwood’s reputation from a safe and popular retail and entertainment center. In July 1984, Daniel Lee Young drove into a crowded sidewalk, killing three pedestrians and injuring 39 more. In December of 1987, 1,000 people were involved in a large fight midway through the premiere of Eddie Murphy’s Raw. And in January of 1988, bystander Karen Toshima was shot in the head and killed by a member of a South Central street gang. This event triggered an overnight decline in the Village. For businesses that had been struggling since the opening of a number of large retail complexes in nearby cities and neighborhoods, the changed reputation of Westwood was the final nail in the coffin. Though the murder was not indicative of a pattern of violence in the area, the wide reporting done on the story had branded the Village a dangerous place, even though crime rates remained relatively low from then on. The vacancy rate reached an all-time high in the early 2000s. Since then, however, significant efforts have been made to revitalize the image of Westwood, and businesses have returned to the Village. Many locals are optimistic that the completion of the Purple Line in 2026 will mark a period of economic growth for the area.

Considering the tumultuous nature of political action around UCLA it may be either ironic or appropriate that the Los Angeles offices of the FBI, IRS and other major federal agencies are located at the nearby Wilshire Federal Building. The 17-story building was completed in 1969 and since then has been a popular site for protests during times of heightened political activity.

Vietnam War demonstrators, pro- and anti-Shah Iranians, parents opposed to toy guns, Occupy Wall Street activists, and just about every kind of political group imaginable has demonstrated at the Federal Building. In July it was the site of a large Black Lives Matter protest expressing solidarity with Portland protestors who were struggling with intervention by federal officers. The Federal Building is often chosen not only for being a symbol of the federal government, but because its location and proximity to large numbers of commuters gives protestors heightened visibility.

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