A drive through contemporary Los Angeles reveals American empire embedded throughout its urban landscape. “Imperial capital” likely conjures visions of eighteenth or nineteenth century European cities—London, Paris, Madrid—rather than twenty-first century Southern California. However, from Lisbon to London to Los Angeles, we encounter empire in the architecture, monuments, and even suburban gardens of these imperial centers. In Los Angeles, nineteenth-century Mexican resources, extracted through imperial schemes, are fixed in the city’s iconic sprawl. This wealth, extracted through imperial plans and regimes in Mexico over the past century and a half, became manifest in the Los Angeles landscape. As explored in my recent book, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941, white investors and settlers in Los Angeles believed that for their newly acquired western city to grow, they needed an expansive hinterland or empire. Los Angeles would boom, they argued, if it took in “tributary territories,” from Southern California, to Nevada, to Arizona, and, notably, to Mexico. Angeleno investors who sought opportunity in Mexico also bequeathed the city with tangible remembrances of their wealth.
Before turning to the city’s imperial landscapes, how did early Anglo migrants to Los Angeles envision the role of their new city in the world at the end of the nineteenth century and dawn of the twentieth? Take, for example, Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and enthusiastic investor in Mexico. With his son-in-law Harry Chandler and a small group of other investors, he owned almost a million acres of agricultural land in Mexico at the turn of the century and counted Mexican President Porfirio Díaz a close personal friend. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Otis and his newspaper also served as some of the staunchest and most vocal proponents of regional growth, north and south of the border. As he built a newspaper and real estate empire, Otis imagined a spectacular and distinctly imperial future for Los Angeles. In his words, the city would become “a mightier Pacific empire, with a population numbering millions where now we see only thousands, and possessing a measure of wealth, civilization and power now inconceivable.”
In keeping with this belief, Otis embraced American empire and its corollary racial hierarchy, in which Anglo American purveyors of empire argued it was their burden to govern and “uplift” nonwhite peoples. From Los Angeles, he requested an army appointment immediately after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and won his military ranking of brigadier general during his tour in the Philippines, where he helped oversee a bloody repression of Philippine nationalists and vocally declared his distaste for the territory’s nonwhite population. Bellicose editorials penned by Otis and his staff supported the expansion of American commercial interests and political control into Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama. During his time in the Philippines, Otis declared to readers of his newspaper that the archipelago “must remain absolutely under American control…some of them [are] still in a state of savagery.”
Otis exported a portion of this imperial vision to Mexico, where he bought a substantial investment property in 1904. With a syndicate of other Los Angeles investors, he purchased the Colorado River Land Company (CRLC), directly south of the California-Baja California border. Otis also leveraged support from the Mexican federal government through his friendship with Díaz, who welcomed American investment dollars in Mexico during his tenure, between 1876 and 1910. They corresponded regularly about the advantages of U.S. investments in Mexico and shared a perspective on the strict control of labor. Both were staunchly anti-union. After observing Diaz’s brutal suppression of several strikes in Mexico, Otis suggested utilizing Díaz’s union busting tactics in California and the West. Otis also regularly welcomed high ranking officials in the Díaz administration to his home, which he dubbed the “Bivouac,” in reference to his days in the military.
Otis imbued his imperial outlook into the buildings he constructed in his hometown. In military parlance, “bivouac” refers to a temporary camp constructed by soldiers. Although his home was a solid and permanent structure in the then-fashionable MacArthur Park neighborhood, Otis imagined it as his military encampment. In it he created a “war room” where he proudly displayed weapons and memorabilia collected during his time in the military, including rifles, knives, swords, a pith helmet, and a large framed photo of himself in uniform. The architecture of the “Bivouac” also bears significance. The façade is distinctly mission revival, an early example of the architectural style that would sweep across Southern California and allow Anglos to link “Spanish architecture, the suburban good life, and racial hierarchy.” In the naming of his newspaper headquarters, Otis also inscribed his imperial and militaristic worldview on the Los Angeles landscape. The Los Angeles Times building, from which he vociferously advocated for an American and Los Angeles empire, he dubbed the “Fortress.” Otis ruled his economic and publishing empire from this building, reinforced with granite against an attack he was sure lurked outside its walls. In case of conflict with labor unions, Otis stored fifty rifles in a tower room and a case of loaded shotguns next the managing editor’s desk. He also conducted military drills in Times offices.
Unfortunately, neither Otis’ home nor the original Times building still stands. Labor activists bombed the Times building in 1910, hoping to undermine Otis and the city’s rabidly anti-union newspaper. Union activists sought, through dynamite and fire, to literally blow the Times building out of the city’s topography. The ties of empire, labor, and dissent are also intricate here—Job Harriman, the defense lawyer for the Times bombers, would also defend Mexican revolutionaries Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón. Credited as the intellectual spark for the Mexican Revolution, the Flores Magón brothers critiqued American investment in Mexico generally and Harrison Gray Otis directly and were arrested and imprisoned in Los Angeles at the urging of the Times owner. The other building, the Bivouac, Otis donated to Los Angeles County with the stipulation that it be used in perpetuity to “promote the arts.” The county founded the Otis Art Institute in the general’s former home but eventually tore down the building to construct a bigger facility in the 1950s.
The street corner in front of Otis’ former home, however, still bears witness to his martial mentality and imperial aspirations. Shortly after his death in 1916, son-in-law Harry Chandler organized a group of friends to raise $50,000 to hire an artist (and Russian prince) to immortalize Otis in a statue, placed just steps from the “Bivouac.” Cast in bronze, Otis wears his military uniform and, reminiscent of conquistadors and adventurers who preceded him, points vigorously at landscapes beyond his street corner.
Other figures in Los Angeles history also staked out commercial empires in Mexico and then marked their imperial exploits on the city’s landscape, including oil titan Edward Doheny. Doheny was at one point the largest oil producer in the world, one of the world’s wealthiest men, and was one of the first to drill for oil in Mexico. By 1894, Doheny controlled the largest portion of Los Angeles’ emerging oil industry. Due in large part to his efforts, in the first two decades of the twentieth century the Los Angeles region became one of the world’s most important oil producers. Wells sprinkled across Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply by World War I. 
Eager to apply his petroleum knowledge in other locales and to reap further fortunes, Doheny looked eagerly to extend his corporate empire beyond the environs of Southern California. In fact, it was Doheny who first exported the oil expertise developed in Southern California’s oil industry to Mexico. In 1900, Doheny took his first trip to Mexico to prospect for oil near Tampico in the State of Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico. In his first decade in Mexico, Doheny produced 85 percent of the oil extracted in the nation and emerged as the largest independent oil producer in the world.
He also held that pulling the fuel of the modern era out of the earth was an endeavor that would propel Mexico towards modernity and civilization. Like many American empire builders, he saw his investment in Mexico and dealings with Mexican workers as both a civilizing force and a way to enrich himself. His job, as he saw it, was to make a fortune while simultaneously “uplifting” the non-white workers he employed in Mexico. As he testified to congress regarding his treatment of his Mexican employees: “We must be patient with the ignorance and the lack of initiative in the Mexican peon. They do not learn by instruction but must be taught by example…the greatest thing we can do in Mexico is the example which our workmen present to the Mexican of how to work, how to live, and how to progress.”
Doheny brought the bulk of his fortune back to Los Angeles and became integral to its development. He had already sparked the city’s oil boom and helped establish one of the region’s most lucrative industries. He helped to develop the City of Beverly Hills. He gave generously to the University of Southern California, located just a few blocks south of his lush complex of mansions at Chester Place, the city’s first gated community. A devout Catholic, Doheny also gave millions of his oil dollars to various Catholic churches and causes in Southern California—as much as $100 million over the course of his life in Los Angeles.
His home, particularly the structure of the greenhouse, was a brick-and-mortar paean to his oil empire. Life at his lavish estate in Chester Place included a private bowling alley, a small private zoo, and this greenhouse featuring an indoor pool large enough to float a canoe. Doheny filled the greenhouse with Mexican plant specimens, carefully moving plant samples from Mexico’s oil regions on his private rail car that ran regularly between Los Angeles and Mexico’s eastern coast. Some historians call this practice—transplanting plant specimens from a colony to an imperial center—“botanical imperialism.” In other words, it was not a simply an interest in gardening that led Doheny to transplant botanical specimens from the Tampico oil region to Los Angeles. During the age of empire, cultivating plants from colonial outposts was intimately bound up in processes of conquest, acquisition, power, and ultimately, display.
The Spanish-language press in Los Angeles did not miss the fact that Mexican resources paid for his opulent presence in the built environment of Los Angeles. In a scathing critique of Doheny published by La Prensa (a Los Angeles-based Spanish language paper), an anonymous author observed in 1919: “Where did his colossal fortune come from? Simply from Mexico…the whole fortune accumulated by the ‘parvenu’ Doheny has come from Mexico without the least benefitting the country. On the contrary, every dollar coming from the Tampico Oil Fields is invested in the United States and especially in Los Angeles where he has a palatial mansion which attracts attention through a lavish display of oriental luxury.” Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were well aware that Doheny’s exploitation of Mexican mineral resources and labor had translated into astonishing displays of wealth north of the border.
Doheny’s Mexican fortune also constructed the library, in Spanish colonial style, at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, just north of Los Angeles. In addition to the building’s Spanish colonial architecture, the library’s facade is based on the Metropolitan Cathedral, the church located in Mexico City’s central plaza and the largest cathedral in the Americas. This mirroring of Mexico in Los Angeles, paid for by Mexican resources, is more than just symbolic. Los Angeles is a twenty-first global metropolis because its early promoters and investors oriented the city towards Mexico, the borderlands, and empire at the end of the nineteenth century. That a replica of a Mexican cathedral stands in Southern California, built with wealth wrought from Mexican oil, is the result of imperial design, not chance. It demonstrates the power of changing the landscape as part of strategies of empire—the Spanish built the original cathedral literally on the center of the Aztec empire. Doheny’s fortune replicated it in the seat of his power—Los Angeles.
While empire is embedded across the greater Los Angeles landscape, we can also find resistance to American imperial projects built into the city’s infrastructure. Take for example, a public art, and in many ways a public history, controversy over Los Angeles and empire that erupted in 1932. Los Angeles city leaders, notably white, had just finished an overhaul of the city’s historic core, known as “Olvera Street.” Chandler, now owner of the Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles promoter Christine Sterling spearheaded the effort. They remade the oldest part of Los Angeles (a historically Mexican and Asian neighborhood and what they described as a “slum”) into a bucolic and entirely fabricated Mexican village.
Over the course of his life in Los Angeles, Chandler aggressively promoted the region, calculating that a growing city would benefit both his newspaper and his extensive real estate investments. Promoting the city paid—toward the end of his life in the 1940s, the Times estimated that he was the eleventh richest man in the world. Part of his portfolio included holding on to the million acres of property that he and his father-in-law purchased at the turn of the century for almost forty years.
Part of the renovation of Olvera Street, begun in the 1920s, included inviting the famed Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint an 80-foot mural on the side of the neighborhood’s Italian Hall. A veteran of the Mexican Revolution, Siqueiros had worked with Diego Rivera on mural campaigns in Mexico City and considered art a political tool and vehicle of revolutionary thought. Siqueiros also believed that revolutionary art should be truly “public” and had just developed a new type of paint and painting technique that would allow murals to be done outdoors and on the sides of buildings, where anyone could see and appreciate them. Chandler and Olvera Street renovators expected Siqueiros to paint something “exotic and picturesque,” in keeping with the recently revamped neighborhood.
Instead, Siqueiros chose the history of European and American imperialism in Mexico as the dramatic subject for his mural, América Tropical. Through images of toppled pyramids, he gestured to the violent Spanish destruction of indigenous culture and society. A bald eagle, symbolizing the United States, hovers over the crucifixion of an Indigenous man. To the right, revolutionary soldiers crouch, training their rifles on the eagle. Significantly, the mural faced Los Angeles city hall. Aimed at the seat of power in the city, the mural embodied a scathing critique of not just American imperialism in Mexico and Latin America, but a critique leveled at the city itself and its role in promoting the interests of American investors in Mexico.
Chandler, Sterling, and their partners in the Olvera Street renovation, including municipal leaders, immediately had the mural whitewashed. Critiques of empire had no place in their bucolic reimagining of Mexico in Los Angeles’ historic core. Less than six months after it was unveiled in 1932, the entire mural was covered in a thick coat of white paint. Calls for restoration began in the 1960s with the rise of the Chicano Movement but it was not until the 2000s that restoration work began in earnest. The Getty Foundation (endowed by the oil fortune of the Getty family) funded one third of the project with the City of Los Angeles covering the remainder. Ironies abound here—major funding for the restoration came from just the type of capitalist enterprise that Siquieros, a committed communist, could not stand. And city government, key in having the original covered in 1932, paid for the bulk of the restoration during the early 2000s.
Ultimately, finding empire and anti-imperialism embedded in Los Angeles’ infrastructure is more than simply a reflection of some historical or economic and imperial trends. Instead, the examples explored here advanced certain ideologies and narratives about the past and the present. Public space and urban landscapes became a place of conversation and dialogue and sometimes even violence about urban growth and the advance of American empire and capitalism from the U.S. west and into Mexico. There were military and martial components of this ideology—as seen in Otis’s impact on the Los Angeles built environment. As he and Doheny also asserted through their infrastructure, this advance was racialized. They maintained that empire could unfold from the U.S. West and into Mexico and the Pacific precisely because whites where superior to nonwhites. Finally, labor activists, artists and critics of these imperial projects used or attempted to use public space and urban landscapes to push back against more dominant narratives. The bombing of a building or the south-facing brick wall and a new type of mural paint served as the tools to call the historical and contemporary narratives about a Los Angeles deserving of imperial reach into Mexico into question.
Empire continues to shape Los Angeles landscapes. Take for example that the neighborhood surrounding Harrison Gray Otis’s home and the statue of him is now a center of the Mexican and Central American immigrant community in Los Angeles. It was precisely the type of imperial and commercial ventures that he promoted that resulted in economic displacement of Mexicans and Central Americans over the last century and caused them to seek refuge in the United States. If we consider the history and topography of the MacArthur Park neighborhood, past and present, we unravel the history of empire and its consequences over a century, all within a block. An empire builder and advocate of extracting resources in Mexican and Latin America, stands in the midst of a neighborhood of migrants, many displaced by that history but also creating something new—a vibrant immigrant community in a space suffering from decline and disinvestment since the 1960s.
As Dolores Hayden called for in her pathbreaking book, The Power of Place, it is imperative to “read” or analyze urban landscapes as historical texts, situating ourselves deeply in urban regions and neighborhoods, analyzing urban space as the result of human history and human struggles on particular landscapes. In other words, we must ask questions about how relationships of power or categories and identities of race, class, and gender shape how cities are designed, constructed, occupied, appropriated, desecrated, and admired. In short, social and economic history and urban landscapes are intertwined.
In a moment of intense public debate over historical monuments, historians are interrogating the narratives we tell—or fail to tell—in American landscapes. As in the vigorous recent debate over Confederate statues, historians of California and the West are reconsidering how western monuments and landscapes can tell a fuller and more nuanced story about social conflict and inequality, particularly those rooted in race, ethnicity, conquest, and empire. The remnants of these stories in Los Angeles are all around us—just look up.
 Felix Driver and David Gilbert, eds., Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display, and Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). See also Philip J. Ethington, “The Global Spaces of Los Angeles, 1920s-1930s,” in Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse, eds., The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
 Jessica Kim, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
 Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers, and Their Influence on Southern California (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977).
 “Interview on the Philippines,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1902.
 “General Otis Pleased with His Trip to Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1902; Letter from Harrison Gray Otis to Porfirio Díaz, December 19, 1903, document 000430, legajo XXIX, Coleccíon Porfirio Díaz, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.
 Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). See also William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of Southern California Press, 2004).
 Errol Wayne Stevens, “Two Radicals and Their Los Angeles: Harrison Gray Otis and Job Harriman,” California History 84, no. 3 (2009) 44-70.
 D. J. Waldie, “The Newsboy, the General, and the Lost Soldier of MacArthur Park,” https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/the-newsboy-the-general-and-the-lost-soldier-of-macarthur-park.
 Martin Ansell, Oil Baron of the Southwest: Edward L. Doheny and the Development of the Petroleum Industry in California and Mexico (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998); Margaret Leslie Davis, Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Dan La Botz, Edward L. Doheny: Petroleum, Power, and Politics in the United States and Mexico (New York: Praeger, 1991); Myrna Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1928 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 See Davis, La Botz, and Santiago.
 Statement of Edward L. Doheny, Investigation of Mexican Affairs, Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 1919.
 See Davis, Ethington, and LaBotz.
 Rebecca Preston, “‘The Scenery of the Torrid Zone’: Imagined Travels and the Culture of Exotics in Nineteenth-Century British Gardens,” in Imperial Cities, edited by Felix Driver and David Gilbert, 194-214 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).
 Translation of article published La Prensa, Los Angeles, April 12, 1919, box 34, Bergman Collection, Huntington Library.
 William Estrada, The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008); Kropp, California Vieja.
 Emily MacDonald-Korth and Leslie Rainer, “The Getty Conservation Institute Project to Conserve David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Mural América Tropical,” Getty Research Journal, no. 6 (2014) 103-114.
 Quoted in Kropp.
 Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995).
 See for example the important op-ed by Laura Dominguez, “Trump’s Stance on National Monuments is Straight out of the 19th Century,” Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-dominguez-antiquities-act-trump-monuments-20190222-story.html.
Jessica Kim is an associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge and the author of Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
Copyright: © 2020 Jessica Kim. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.