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From Mammoths to Jefferson: How the Los Angeles Street System Ended Up So Weird

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This weekend, Heyday Books will launch LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, with 19 "maps" of Los Angeles (some literal, some impressionistic) accompanied by 19 essays on topics ranging from street grids to fish to missiles to radio DJs. We're exploring one map from the book every day this week.

In some places, Los Angeles's street grid is neat and orderly, pointing to the four cardinal directions. In other places, it's neat and orderly, with a 45 degree tilt. Other places, it's doing god knows what. In his LAtitudes essay "Gridding the City," Nathan Masters travels the length of Wilshire Boulevard, from Downtown to Santa Monica, and through the history of Los Angeles's many layouts. Approaches changed as the city sprawled west from Downtown, giving Wilshire its unpredictable course through the basin, and meanwhile dividing up the wild land and turning it into private property.

Wilshire Boulevard was first born a long time ago:

Pounded into the landscape by the feet of mammoths and other migratory grazers … primitive highways descended from mountain passes toward watering holes on the coastal plain. One of these early highways led many a Pleistocene beast to its death in the asphalt pits near Wilshire and La Brea. … [One] trail with prehistoric origins extended west of present-day Los Angeles, connecting the large Tongva village of Yaangna with coastal settlements. Under the Spanish, the trail became a well-used highway, rutted with the tracks of wagons transporting asphalt pitch from the La Brea Tar Pits for the pueblos' adobe structures. And though the exact route is lost, Wilshire Boulevard today approximates the path of this ancient highway.

Modern-day Wilshire began after the arrival of the Spanish in 1769, when the city was given its first street grid according to the 1573 Laws of the Indies, which "mandated the creation of a central plaza—'the starting point for the town'—and specified its size, shape, and orientation. Streets would extend at right angles from the plaza's four corners, each of which would point toward the four principal points of the compass. The resulting 45-degree skew in the streets' orientation was meant to prevent the prevailing winds from surging through the streets."

By the 1840s, when the US wrested California from the Mexicans, LA had only about 1,500 residents and still "only the rudimentary beginnings of a street grid. In fact, only a few well-defined streets existed, intersecting with various highways leading to the mission, the harbor in San Pedro, and the tar pits."

The Americans knew they'd have to divvy up the land they'd just seized so that it could be bought and sold, and so Edward Otho Cresap Ord was hired in 1849 to survey the city ("he insisted on using his own compass even after it showed signs of trouble"):

When [apprentice William Rich] Hutton sketched the resulting map, filed with the city in September 1849, a pair of regularly patterned gridirons—one north of the plaza and one south—accompanied the city's existing footprint. ... North of the plaza, the grid was skewed 22 degrees off the cardinal directions. South of the plaza, the grid tilted 38 degrees. In both cases, Main Street approximated existing pathways."

North of the plaza, Ord and Hutton sketched a grid that still anchors Chinatown today. They gave many of the streets, projected onto what was then open countryside, colorful, bilingual names. Calle del Toro, or Bull Street, dead-ended at a bullfighting ring. Calle de Eternidad, or Eternity Street, led to the town cemetery. Most of these names are forgotten; Bull Street is today North Hill, and Eternity is North Broadway. Meanwhile, another of Ord's creations, High Street, now honors its creator as Ord Street.

Southwest of the plaza, the surveyors drew an even larger grid that today forms the core of downtown Los Angeles. A series of numbered streets, from First to Twelfth, extended far into the open countryside. Paralleling Main Street were Calle Primavera, or Spring Street; Fortín, or Fort (now Broadway); Loma, or Hill; Accytuna, or Olive; Caridad, or Charity (now Grand); Esperanzas, or Hope; Flores, or Flower; and Chapules, or Grasshopper (now Figueroa).

The city at the time extended as far as the present-day site of City Hall, at First and Spring, and Ord's blocks were marked out beyond that in fields of mustard and wildflowers. But there was still even more space beyond and lots of money to be made:

Heavily in debt, the newly American city of Los Angeles by 1853 found itself needing to convert more of its public lands into private real estate that could be auctioned off and taxed. The city would sell some parcels outright; prices started at a dollar per acre. Others it would give away on the condition that the new owners make certain improvements, like building an irrigation ditch or planting crops; the city would reap increased tax revenue from these so-called donation lots. Ord was back east by then, so a man named George Hansen ended up "creat[ing] a new grid that diverged from Ord's in both scale and orientation," with huge lots and a tilt of only 28 degrees. (MacArthur Park takes up one of the lots he created.) The switch, which begins at Twelfth and Figueroa, "accounts for Figueroa's subtle jog at Pico Boulevard and Wilshire's slight bend as it crosses the Harbor Freeway, whose concrete footprint hides the seam between the two grids." Hansen and his partner Henry Hancock named the east-west streets for US presidents and the north'south streets "for the governors of Alta California: Micheltorena, Alvarado, Figueroa, and Echandia."

These streets weren't developed for decades, though. It wasn't until 1895 that "eccentric millionaire" Gaylord Wilshire created a residential tract between Sixth and Seventh Streets, cut through with a gravel path he named for himself.

As Wilshire hits Hoover Street, the grid takes a sharp turn to cardinal orientation—this is where LA really became American, adopting the rigid layout of Thomas Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1785, which "recommended a vast, rectangular grid of townships, each thirty-six square miles and divided into thirty-six smaller sections. Survey lines rather than rivers and mountains would govern the shape of property parcels and placement of roads."

The Public Land Survey System, as the national grid is known today, came to Southern California in the 1850s. Civil land grants like ranchos and Los Angeles's four square leagues of pueblo lands were excluded, but government surveyors gridded all the unclaimed land in between into townships and sections, which then promptly passed into private hands. On our trek down Wilshire, the busy transit hubs at Vermont and Western avenues, spaced one mile apart, mark our entry and departure from one such section. Both streets trace lines first drawn more than 150 years ago by U.S. Army surveyor Henry Washington. Just past Western, Wilshire starts hitting those old ranchos that were exempt from the rigid gridding: "Between here and the Pacific Ocean, Wilshire will pass through five separate ranchos," including Rancho La Brea and Rancho Las Cienegas, and meanwhile cross "an occasional errant street like San Vicente or Venice," that was laid out according to the old streetcar lines. Eventually it hits Santa Monica, and

the road corrects its course to enter a grid that town founders Robert S. Baker and John P. Jones patterned after the Pacific shore. Santa Monica's numbered streets reflect the southeastern direction of the shoreline. Wilshire Boulevard and other intersecting streets, meanwhile, proceed toward the ocean, their bearings directly perpendicular to the cliffs of Palisades Park.

· Finding Yaangna, the Ancestral Village of LA's Native People [Curbed LA]
· Mapping LA's Long Tradition of State-Sanctioned Racial Violence, 1771-Present [Curbed LA]
· LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas [Heyday]