Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Downtown L.A.'s Street Grid Is At An Angle

It's baffled me for eons: Why is downtown Los Angeles laid out at an angle (36 degrees, to be exact), rather than north-south?

Angelenos know that they're not actually facing north when looking up Broadway, Main or Spring Streets (or any street for that matter). Yet the brain has a way of playing tricks on us; it's still hard to convince yourself that you're actually peering toward the northeast.

But then, suddenly at Hoover, the grid rights itself. To the west of Hoover, L.A. streets are indeed laid out north-south and east-west. What gives?

Local historian and author D.J. Waldie has the answer (it's a Spanish colonial thing), via a lively op-ed piece in Sunday's L.A. Times:

Royal ordinances required that the streets and house lots in the cities of New Spain have a 45-degree disorientation from true north and south to provide, it was said, equal light to every side of a small house throughout the day. Given the way Spanish and then Mexican Los Angeles extended along the bank of its uncertain river, only 36 degrees of compliance was possible.

The 1849 Ord and Hutton survey, which produced the first map of the newly American city, left the puzzle of royal versus republican orientation unresolved. The map pictures a longitudinal city and used facts on the ground — the bed of the Los Angeles River — as an organizing principle. Faint, spidery lines intersecting at the town plaza hint at compass points the map otherwise ignores.

As the city began to sell itself into the future in the 1870s, Ord's map was blended with newer real estate surveys. They too show the city within the grid of its founding. House lots and streets continue to replicate its off-kilter orientation, as they will until the boom times that followed the arrival of the transcontinental railroads at the end of the 19th century.

Waldie wrote the forward to the brand new book Los Angeles in Maps (a great gift for the holidays, hint-hint), from which the map above was taken.

Also in the Sunday L.A. Times: Remembering Sarah Bernhardt's 1913 car accident -- among the first ever reported for an entertainment figure. The crash eventually forced Bernhardt to amputate her leg.

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