Friday, October 29, 2010

Los Angeles is Off Kilter

A bit of trivia that I would never have figured out, except for D. J. Waldie's essay "L.A.'s Crooked Heart" in the Los Angeles Times of October 24, 2010.

Turns out that downtown area of our city is not strictly aligned to north, south, east, and west. Or rather, it is, but the alignment is deliberately skewed--as you can see in the arial photo from Flickr, taken in 2006 by user KLA4067.

Anyone's who's looke at a good map or aerial view of the downtown area has probably noticed that in that chunk of real estate the streets run crooked, as if they sat on a lazy susan that got wheeled to the right about 36 degrees. Why?

Well, Los Angeles was part of Mexico when it was laid out. Naturally--as Mexico was then part of New Spain--the planners followed the Spanish practice of civic design. As Waldie points out, that's quite different than our usual Jeffersonian grid that follows north, south, etc. In the Spanish world, following laws from the 16th century, streets and homes were laid out at 45 degree angles to the true direction. That way, all homes got sunlight on all sides. It's actually a pretty sweet idea, imho.

However, the Los Angeles River made the 45 degree angle impossible, so in our city center we're 36 degrees off the cardinal directions. We just have to be difficult. Waldie says it wasn't until the 19th century, when LA really boomed, that new streets and neighborhoods were designed to conform to the true compass points--leaving us with the off-kilter downtown.

For those of you who've tossed the Sunday paper, here's the link. With great pictures!

Author D. J. Waldie just contributed the Forward to a book called Los Angeles in Maps by Glen Creason, with essay by others including Dydia DeLyser. Dydia DeLyser, owner of one of the most memorable names in academia, has published work analyzing the layout Bodie (my favorite ghost town), on using Ebay to study historic geography, and--intriguing--Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California.

1 comment:

Judy Herman said...

Glen Creason, author of Los Angeles in Maps, is the Map LIbrarian at L.A. Central Library and a funny guy. I hear the book is beautiful.