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A Brief History of Los Angeles Neighborhood Naming

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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.

Los Angeles has been putting up neighborhood signs since 1963, but officially it has no neighborhoods at all. In his LAtitudes essay "Naming Los Angeles," Rosten Woo asks the reader to imagine they have a set of crime statistics for all of Los Angeles—how would they summarize the findings?

[N]either the city, nor the county, have any official neighborhood boundaries. If your data was for Chicago, your task would be simple. The city publishes a definitive map of all the neighborhoods, so you could tally the number of crimes that happened within the boundaries of a given neighborhood and list the number. … No one has to debate whether or not something happened in Irving Park or Avondale, it's there on the map. But your data is for Los Angeles. So you're left with a mishmash of geographies that you might be able to organize the information into: zip codes, police precincts, community planning areas, census tracts—none of these mean much to most people. You might know your own zip code, but you probably don't have any idea of how big it is or where the next one begins. If your data was for New York, you could say something definitive about a borough. But even the broadest regions of Los Angeles have trouble finding a firm definition. The Eastside? the Westside? Forget it.

Still, no one ever stops naming neighborhoods in LA (even the most top-level lists of Valley neighborhoods today have double the number of names as the 1940 Thomas Guide). In second person, Woo recounts true-life tales of neighborhood namings and renamings, and how significant those names are to the residents of those places. There's the wealthy Van Nuys neighborhoods that lobbies for years to join tonier Sherman Oaks. The Bangladeshi national who fights to designate a piece of Koreatown (which doesn't technically exist!) as Little Bangladesh, but ends up with just three blocks. Northeast LA's Hermon, which lost its namesake in 1978, when City Councilmember Arthur Snyder managed to have Hermon Avenue renamed Via Marisol, after his daughter.

And Helen Johnson, the Vermont Square resident who in 2003 convinced the LA City Council to pass a motion requesting "that the city discontinue the use of the term 'South Central Los Angeles' on all City documents and replace this phrase with the term 'South Los Angeles' as documents are updated and printed."

Remarkably, this seems to work. In ten years, people will no longer have a convenient way to refer to Black Los Angeles. "South Los Angeles" covers such an enormous swath of territory (roughly fifty-one square miles, much larger than the area that was once called South Central) that it means almost nothing. It fails to describe, and therefore fails to label your community. And just a few weeks ago, 12 years and a few shiny developments projects into "South LA," City Councilmember Bernard Parks introduced a motion that would rename the area again, to SOLA.


· 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]
· From Mammoths to Jefferson: How the Los Angeles Street System Ended Up So Weird [Curbed LA]
· South LA Might Change Its Name to SOLA [Curbed LA]
· LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas [Heyday]