There are more 50,000 streets in Los Angeles County. They are named after cult leaders (L. Ron Hubbard Way), martyred astronauts (Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street), the view of a lighthouse (Signal Street), and even a deadly element (Radium Drive). But for the original 44 founders of Los Angeles in September 1781, the only passable throughway was Mission Road, the dusty, ancient Native American trail they traveled from Mission San Gabriel to their new pueblo on the banks of the LA River.
As Los Angeles grew, and the Spanish and Mexican ranchos prospered, roads were cleared and named by settlers. According to historian Bernice Kimball, author of the insanely informative Street Names of Los Angeles and whose research is now in the Los Angeles city archives, “early street names, as in most communities, in Los Angeles indicated where the homes or farms of the local inhabitants were.”
There were Wolfskill’s Road, Foster’s Road, and Chavez Street. Other early street names denoted location or a geographical marker. For example, Aliso Road was named for the huge Aliso tree near the Louis Vignes vineyard. According to historian Cecilia Rasmussen, one particularly descriptive street name, Calle de Los Chapules (street of the grasshoppers), came about “because pedestrians used to leap about while sour-faced policemen whistled and chased the crowds from one corner to the other.”
It was not until 1849 that Los Angeles officials finally commissioned an official map to document and record the names of their streets. The reason? The town was broke, and they needed to sell off land, but first they needed a map to document the land they owned.
The 1849 map was surveyed by Edward Otho Cresap Ord, a West Point graduate, Army lieutenant, artist, and surveyor. According to map historian and author Glen Creason, Ord was aided greatly in his survey by his assistant William Rich. Together they recorded early street names, including: Adobe, College, Olive, Hill, Main, and Flower, which was named for a hill just behind the road that was covered in wildflowers.
Over the next two decades of slow growth, new streets were recorded, including Colorado in 1851 and Aliso and Los Angeles in 1854. With street names, “homesick settlers recalled the cities or states of their origin or other places of fond remembrance,” Kimball writes. She continues:
Subdividers indicated their political interests by naming streets for presidents (Lincoln streets were mostly eradicated or omitted) and southern generals and evidencing their confederate sympathies. Napoleon, his battles and his horse found a place; other famous battles were used as well. The first street naming after Ord’s in 1849 was Hansen’s submission which gave streets of East/West orientations names of Presidents; and streets of North/South bearing, those of Governors of California.
These political names are still evident today. There is Alvarado Street, for the Mexican-era California Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado; Adams Boulevard, for President John Adams; and Washington, for President George Washington. In 1855, Calle de Los Chapules was officially renamed Figueroa Street to honor the Mexican-era Gov. Jose Figueroa. The famed Olvera Street, recorded in 1858, was named for Agustin Olvera, the first judge of the County of Los Angeles.
During the 1880s, California, and Los Angeles, experienced explosive growth and a rush of land speculation. According to Kimball, in 1887, a record breaking 169 new street names were recorded.
While some names were literal—Rampart Boulevard was named for an embankment on the terrain, for example—many more had a supposedly “refined” British and continental air. Street names recorded that year included Manchester, New Hampshire, St. James Park, London, Lancaster, and Mont Clair Court. Rowena Avenue was named in honor of the heroine in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. “During the boom of the eighties many subdividers included their own given names and that of their wives, children or even pets,” Kimball writes.
Many of these names reflected the increasingly Anglo-Saxon whitewashing occurring in LA during the time. Attempts to erase LA’s Hispanic history came to a head in 1897. According to Rasmussen:
In 1897, Mayor Meredith Pinxton “Pinky” Snyder suggested changing the names of such streets and avenues as Arapahoe, Juanita, Cerro Gordo and Santiago because, he said, “newcomers cannot spell or pronounce” such names... Angelenos were highly insulted; the names survived.
Despite attempts to preserve the past, many streets were named and renamed on whims, as demographics and power dynamics shifted.
“As the city expanded, the first streets around the pueblo spreading across Los Angeles needed to be distinguished from the old plaza,” says Creason. “Streets like Bull or Hornet or Bath got added to larger throughways, but sometimes portions were renamed after property owners.”
Some of Creason’s favorite street names that got lost in the endless shuffle include Badger, Bowl, Flink, Jennie Belle, P street, X street, Confidence, Wasp, Lardo, Aztec, Bonanza, Burtz, Concha, Ensenada, Fireman, Hemlock, Joplin, Juan, Mary Lane, Otter, Poe, Ruth Upham, Star, Turtle, and Kentucky.
The next wave of street naming came during the boomtime construction bonanza that was the 1920s. The biggest year, 1923, saw an astounding 582 new street names recorded. That year, new streets including Oakhurst, Petroleum, Narcissus, Norwalk, McKinley, Maryland, La Cienega, Hermosa, Hazelhurst, Canoga, Bixby, Bamford, and Bellagio Road were recorded. In 1925, Elsie Beason named Rainbow Avenue in Mount Washington because it curved like a rainbow.
With the endless naming and renaming of streets, and the never-ending construction of new subdivisions with new streets, confusion often reigns when it comes to the history of LA street names.
“My personal favorite is the non-existent Faith street, which was once said to be part of the holy trinity of street names Faith, Hope, and Charity,” Creason says. “This was a story repeated by historian Harris Newmark; that Susie Childs, the wife of real estate magnate Ozro William Childs, named some streets for the three Christian cardinal virtues. Later, the story goes Faith was changed to Flower. If there was a Snopes.com back in the day that story might have been debunked, but no map shows a Faith street, and even Charity was later changed to Grand.”
Over the past decades, street naming has continued at a steady clip, but nothing like the boom in the 1920s. Occasionally controversial names, such as the one honoring L. Ron Hubbard in East Hollywood, have been approved much to the dismay of detractors. But not every egotist has had his day.
“In 1971, Jazz Age megaphone crooner and actor Rudy Vallee attempted to have a short section of his street in the Hollywood Hills, Pyramid Place, renamed ‘Rue de Vallee,’ French for “Vallee’s Way,’” Rasmussen writes. “When the neighbors objected, he called them ‘disgruntled pukes.’ But the city agreed with the neighbors. Vallee put up his own sign, christening his long driveway Rue de Vallee.”
This busy thoroughfare, running through dDowntown Los Angeles, was reportedly named by Edward Ord during his 1849 survey. (Ord would later get a street himself in Chinatown). “The story goes that while Ord was laying out the city’s streets, he was smitten with a young woman named Trinidad de la Guerra, whom he nicknamed ‘mi primavera,’ or ‘my springtime,’” according to librarian and historian Kelly Wallace. “She was the granddaughter of Jose Francisco Ortega, the Spanish explorer credited with discovering San Francisco Bay. Ord paid tribute to her by naming a street Calle Primavera. Today we know it as Spring Street.”
One of the most iconic streets in Los Angeles—and the world—Sunset Boulevard first appeared in city clerk records in 1888. The famed thoroughfare had already existed for decades, starting out as a dusty, 600-foot dirt road near the old Plaza. According to Rasmussen, as it expanded west toward the sea, portions were named Short, Bread, and Marchesseault (after Mayor Damien Marchesseault). Historian Amy Dawes, author of Sunset Blvd: Cruising the Heart of Los Angeles, credits its naming to a city employee who may have noticed that the road afforded a beautiful view of the sun setting over the Pacific.
According to Rasmussen, the view was particularly lovely on the portion of the road which traversed a hill owned by California Sen. Cornelius Cole (whose family would have 11 streets named after them in Hollywood).
Named in 1904 for banker and developer George L. Crenshaw, this iconic, over 23- mile street runs through neighborhoods including Crenshaw, Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills. Originally from Missouri, Crenshaw developed Lafayette Square and Wellington Square, as well as owning the Crenshaw Security Company. When he died in 1937, The Los Angeles Times memorialized him thusly:
His name will continue to be known because of the designation of the great boulevard in the West End area. His contributions to the upbuilding of Los Angeles from the time of his arrival here… was unceasing. He was one of a dwindling group of early day real estate leaders whose monuments are the homes of countless thousands. They did much to acquaint the world with the attractions of Southern California. Mr. Crenshaw deserves a place in the front rank of those developers. They formed the bone and sinew of a metropolis.
The heart of black LA since the 1950s, Crenshaw Boulevard was a source of controversy in the early 2000s, when the City Council explored naming the road after LA’s first African American mayor, Tom Bradley. Eventually, residents’ desire to preserve the historic name won out, and Crenshaw Boulevard remains.
Winning the award for LA’s most dystopian street name, Cypress Park’s Future Street was first recorded in 1921. Its origin remains fuzzy, though Kimball surmises it may have been a take on the Fusano family, olive growers who owned the land that was being developed. Kimball also believes that “Future” may have simply been a placeholder “intended for later dedication.” If so, the dedication never occurred.
This iconic Beverly Hills street is on land that was once part of the massive Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, meaning “gathering of the waters” originally granted to Maria Rita Valdez Villa. According to an 1893 article in the Los Angeles Times, the ranch at that time spanned 3,200 acres.
Cattle, sheep, and pigs were raised on the ranch, and acres of sugar beets and barley were grown. According to Creason, the land went through many owners until the turn of the last century, when the Rodeo Land and Water Company, a consortium of businessmen headed by Burton Green, bought it hoping to find oil. They didn’t find any, and instead built the subdivision of Beverly Hills. In 1907, the company named one of the main streets running through the fledgling neighborhood Rodeo Drive, after the rancho of long ago.
Before it became Obama Boulevard in May 2019, this 3.5-mile long street in Baldwin Hills and Crenshaw was known as Rodeo Road. Originally named in 1911, Rodeo Road harkens back to LA’s Wild West past, when ranchers herded thousands of cattle across the county. Its new designation as Obama Blvd., according to the Los Angeles Times, is to “further establish a ‘presidential row’ that includes Washington, Adams and Jefferson boulevards.”
This small street off San Fernando Road was first recorded in 1922. According to Kimball, it is named in honor of the indomitable, Hungarian-born Ida Hancock Ross, as were Rossmore Avenue, Rosswell Street, and Rosswood Terrace. One of the forgotten pioneering landowners and oil moguls of Victorian Los Angeles, Ross was the owner of the sprawling Rancho La Brea. Known as Madame Ida, she was also an early benefactor to charitable and artistic institutions in what was then the cultural backwater of Los Angeles. When she died in 1913, the Los Angeles Times credited her with growing Los Angeles from a “tiny vallage to the great, thriving metropolis of today.”
La Cienega Boulevard
La Cienega is a misspelling of la cienaga, which means swamp. It is taken from the Rancho La Cienega, a land grant in what is now West LA, which was awarded by Gov. Manuel Micheltorena to Don Vicente Sanchez in 1843. La Cienega Boulevard was opened in 1924 and advertised as a straight line from the Hollywood valley to Baldwin Hills. In 1949, it was expanded through Baldwin Hills and planned to be a section of the fabled Laurel Canyon State Freeway, which was never built.
This thoroughfare was named after Leslie C. Brand, the tiny daredevil developer who is considered “the father of Glendale.”
Brand also named streets after his wife Louise, and his brothers-in-law Dryden, Stocker, and Randolph. “M Street, also renamed by Brand, honored a flourishing romance,” Katherine Yamada writes in the Los Angeles Times. “One of Brand’s tract managers had a daughter named Mary. She was engaged to a young man named Land. Brand combined their two names and the street became Maryland Avenue.”
Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko Way
This small access street on Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles is named after Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Revolutionary War hero who was born in Poland. He was also a composer, artist, and architect, and helped construct forts for the continental army.
In 1977, the City Council rejected the suggested name for the small street, citing its length and tricky pronunciation. That’s when Burbank resident Mary Dziadula stepped in and schooled the council on Kosciuszko’s rich legacy. The council quickly accepted the two-block street’s new name, thrilling Revolutionary War enthusiasts and Polish-Americans across the country.