To older generations, the time kids spend browsing social media—using Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and now TikTok—might look like brain-numbing hours of mindless entertainment.
But as many cutting-edge creators now realize, this growing group of millennial and zoomer youth actually care deeply about the histories and cultures of the places they live. Al Paton, a producer for the online video production company Yestervid, understands this perfectly. He helps research and edit videos compiling old footage of major cities. The studio’s latest effort unearthed films on Los Angeles, including the oldest known footage of the city from 1897.
“When I saw all this old footage, it was incredible. It was inspiring. I thought, we just had to do LA,” Paton said. “The format is new, but the content is old. That’s the way to reach younger people.”
The new video features over 10 minutes of richly historical footage from across LA County, including Santa Monica, Downtown, Hollywood (then “Hollywoodland”) and Long Beach.
Time-bending clips show busy streets filled with horse-drawn buggies, street cars and even trains barreling down railroads near Santa Monica Pier, one following the route of what is now the Pacific Coast Highway up the coast toward Malibu. That shot of the train is also the second oldest footage of the city, just a few days off from the oldest 1897 date. Other films capture dramatic events in Los Angeles’ history, like the opening of the LA aqueduct, famous Hollywood moments, the 1933 earthquake and floods from the 1920s.
“You see real snippets of the birth of LA. I think it’s important that this stuff is preserved,” said Paton on the videos’ value.
An extended chapter of the film focuses on Downtown from the turn of the century up until the 1930s. Aerial footage surveys famous landmarks, like the strikingly barren surroundings near LA City Hall and the radically undeveloped Bunker Hill neighborhood, before they grew into busy commercial centers. For lesser-known buildings, the video also features a beautiful, period-appropriate, hand-drawn map of Downtown that Paton discovered while getting a sense for the shape of the city nearly a century ago. It helps put the shots, which even feature the opening of the famous funicular rail Angel’s Flight before it closed in 1969 and moved a few blocks over in 1996, in appropriate context.
“The rate at which the city grew between 1900 and 2000 is staggering,” Paton noted on Downtown. “It really looked like a little village, and that’s Downtown basically.”
Another fascinating chapter shows iconic moments and figures from Hollywood history. Tracking back to the film industry’s early days as companies moved out West to avoid the high taxes levied by East Coast states, footage highlights the original complexes of the main studios, with aerial shots showing the sprawling campuses of Warner Brothers and Goldwyn. Other prominent actors, directors and artists get candid clips, like Charlie Chaplin, Billy Bitzer, the controversial producer D.W. Griffiths, and Oscar Micheaux—an extraordinarily important early influence on the development of Black film.
“One of the things you can’t help but think while you’re watching these videos is that everybody in them is dead. But you can reflect on your life and think about what you’ll be remembered for. It’s quite humbling. It makes you realize your own mortality,” said Paton on the film’s slightly morbid but powerful effect.
Ending the video, the oldest footage itself shows a beautiful “day in the life” moment of the early city. At over 120 years old, the scene captured at South Spring Street still looks bustling. Horses pull a packed carriage down the road as a crowd of pedestrian onlookers bursts off the sidewalk. A young boy even follows behind the buggy on a bike, giving the grainy, black-and-white footage a touch of familiarity.
“It’s just astounding how much footage there is out there. The vast majority of it ends up on the cutting floor,” said Paton. “I want people to look at it and go, ‘Wow, there’s a whole world out there that I could get into.’ This is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the edited highlights.”
Whether just moving to the city or a lifelong resident, appreciating the history of LA gives people an opportunity to understand its unique texture. The footage, often over a century old, provides valuable context to the most seemingly fundamental landmarks. Appreciating how radically a city’s landscape can shift helps forecast the years of inevitable future development, an especially important understanding for the younger generations who will soon guide it through such change.
“I’m all on board with kids being into watching videos. If that’s the way to reach them, I’m fine with that. It’s a good way to try and get people interested in something. That’s a win for everyone!”