Pacoima's first inhabitants were the Gabrielino-Tongva people, a California Indian Tribe, historically known as San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians. From the Gabrielino Indians Pacoima received its name, in their language it means "Rushing Water". They gave it this name due to the large streams of water which flowed though the area down from the mountain canyons.
Pacoima's written history dates to 1769 when the first party of white men crossed the valley on their way to Monterey Bay. After the founding of Mission San Fernando Rey in 1771, the Indians became converts, lived at the mission and helped to farm the large gardens of the mission which, in a few years, had stretched out over most of the valley.
The Mexican government secularized the mission lands in 1834 by taking them away from the church. The first governor of California, Pio Pico, leased the lands to Andrés Pico, his brother. In 1845, Pio Pico sold the whole San Fernando Valley to Don Eulogio de Celis for $14,000 to raise money for the war between Mexico and the United States, settled by a treaty signed at Campo de Cahuenga in 1845, and by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The Pacoima area became sheep ranches and wheat fields.
In 1873, Senator Charles Maclay of Santa Clara purchased 56,000 acres in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley adjacent to the San Fernando Mission and in 1887, Jouett Allen purchased 1,000 acres of land between the Pacoima Wash and the Tujunga Wash. The land he purchased was from the Maclay Rancho Water Company, which had taken over Senator Charles Maclay’s holdings in the Valley. Allen retained 500 acres for himself and subdivided the remainder in one acre tracts. It was from this that the town of Pacoima was born.
The town was built in keeping with the new Southern Pacific railroad station. Shortly after the rail line had been established, the Southern Pacific Railroad chose the site for a large brick passenger station, which was considered to be one of the finest on their line. Soon large spacious and expensive two-story homes made their appearance, as the early planners had established building restrictions against anything of a lesser nature. The first concrete sidewalks and curbs were laid and were to remain the only ones in the San Fernando Valley for many years.
In 1888, the town's main street, one hundred feet wide and eight miles long, was laid through the center of the subdivision. The street was first named Taylor Avenue after President Taylor, later it was re-named Pershing Street. Today it is known it by its present name- Van Nuys Boulevard. Building codes were established: requiring that homes built to cost at least USD$2,000. The land deed contained a clause that if liquor was sold on this property, it would revert to Jouett Allen or his heirs.
But like the railroad station, the large hotel, the big two-story school building and many commercial buildings, most were torn down within a few years as the boom days receded. The early pioneers had frowned upon industry, which eventually resulted in the people moving away from the exclusive suburb which they had set up to establish new homes closer to their employment and Pacoima returned to its rural, agricultural roots.
In 1916, the presently named Pacoima Chamber of Commerce was established as the Pacoima Chamber of Farmers. For many years, the fertile soil produced abundant crops of olives, peaches, apricots, oranges and lemons. The opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct brought a new supply of water to the area. With the new water supply, the number of orchards, farms and poultry ranches greatly increased and thoroughbred horses began to be raised.
Los Angeles annexed the land, including Pacoima, as part of ordinance 32192 N.S. on May 22, 1915.
World War II and after
During World War II, the rapid expansion of the workforce at Lockheed's main plant in neighboring Burbank and need for worker housing led to the construction of the San Fernando Gardens housing project. By the 1950s, the rapid suburbanization of the San Fernando Valley arrived in Pacoima, and the area changed almost overnight from a dusty farming area to a bedroom community for the fast-growing industries in Los Angeles and nearby Burbank and Glendale, with transportation to and from Pacoima made easy by the Golden State Freeway.
Beginning in the late 1940s, parts of Pacoima started becoming a place where Southern Californians escaping poverty in rural areas settled. In the post-World War II era, many African Americans settled in Pacoima after arriving in the area during the second wave of the Great Migration since they had been excluded from other neighborhoods due to racially discriminatory covenants. By 1960, almost all of the 10,000 African Americans in the San Fernando Valley lived in Pacoima and Arleta. Timothy Williams of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Pacoima "became the center of African-American life in the Valley."
In 1966, Los Angeles city planners wrote a 48-page report criticizing Pacoima for failing to have a coherent structure to develop businesses in the central business district, lacking civic pride, and having poor house maintenance.
On January 31, 1957, a Douglas DC-7B operated by Douglas Aircraft Company was involved in a mid-air collision and crashed into the schoolyard of Pacoima Middle School, then named Pacoima Junior High School. By February 1, seven people had died, and about 75 had been injured due to the incident. A 12-year old boy died from multiple injuries from the incident on February 2. On June 10, 1957, a light aircraft hit a house in Pacoima; the four passengers onboard died, and eight people in the house sustained injuries.
Ethnic changes and poverty
By the late 1960s, immigrants from rural Mexico began to move to Pacoima due to the low housing costs and the city's proximity to manufacturing jobs. African Americans who were better established began to move out and, in an example of ethnic succession, within less than two decades, the African American population was replaced by a poorer Latino immigrant population. 75% of Pacoima's residents were African Americans in the 1970s. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 71% of Pacoima's population was of Hispanic/Latino descent while 10% was African American. Immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Salvador settled in Pacoima.
The closing of factories in the area around Pacoima in the early 1990s caused residents to lose jobs, reducing the economic base of the city; many residents left Pacoima as a result. By 1994, Pacoima was the poorest area in the San Fernando Valley. One in three Pacoima residents lived in public housing. The poverty rate hovered between 25% and 40%. In 1994, Williams wrote of Pacoima, "one of the worst off" neighborhoods in Los Angeles "nevertheless hides its poverty well." Williams cited the lack of homeless people on Pacoima's streets, the fact that no vacancies existed in Pacoima's major shopping center, and the presence of "neat" houses and "well-tended" yards. Williams added that in Pacoima "holding a job is no guarantee against being poor." In 1994, Howard Berman, the U.S. Congress representative of an area including Pacoima, and Los Angeles City Council member Richard Alarcon advocated including a 2-mi2 (5.2-km2) area in the City of Los Angeles's bid for a federal empowerment zone. The proposed area, with 13,000 residents in 1994, included central Pacoima and a southern section of Lake View Terrace.