In August of 1930, Basil Heathcote of the Los Angeles Times railed against the gods of progress that were responsible for the “meaningless back-East appellations” given to Los Angeles’ thoroughfares. He, like many writers before and since, specifically lamented the loss of Los Angeles’ “melodic” Spanish street names.[i] After all, “what could be lovelier, more romantic, or more characteristic than the fine old Spanish names… that gave dramatic and distinctive individuality” to the city.
As a number of historians have pointed out, this interest in LA’s Spanish place names did not necessarily translate to a respect for the city’s contemporary Mexican and Mexican American community.[ii] However, racial politics aside, concern for the city’s original and “musical” street names has been a common thread in the city’s story.
In 1896, one of the city’s earliest historians, J. M. Guinn argued against the adoption of a citywide numbered street system and recommended that those charged with “christening” streets should “select as far as possible the euphonious historic names.” Guinn goes on to suggest that retaining the city’s original street names and naming streets after historic persons, would remind “our tenderfeet Councilmen that Los Angeles existed before their arrival in it – that it had made some history before the year of boom”.[iii]
In the 1920s, proposed changes to downtown street names brought “indignant protests” from the public and “sizzling letters to the editors to stop the outrage.”[iv] Thirty years later, LA Times columnist, Tom Cameron bemoaned the “dissipation” of Los Angeles’ Spanish nomenclature. The “mania” for changing street names had to be stopped because each “change was away from the original euphonious, imaginative or descriptive appellation.”[v]
The retention of older street names allowed these Angelenos to think of the city in historical terms. At various points in time, writers sought to equip the city with an origin story that would explain the present and their role in it. Like many creation myths, the city of Los Angeles had apparently emerged out of chaos. For example, Heathcote reminds his readers that the early pueblo settlement had no sidewalks, or “pavements or gutters or street lights – just dusty, twisty roads that in the rainy season were knee-deep with mud”. More significantly, he states that none of the original streets were laid out according to a plan, “They just grew… got headed in a certain direction and kept to it.”[vi] This is not quite true, but it is fair to say that the straight lines and neat blocks shown on the Ord Survey of 1849 (revised by Henry Hancock in 1857) hid a fairly scruffy reality.
[i] Heathcote, Basil “The Pendulum Swings Back” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Aug 10, 1930; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1989), pg. J8; Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); “Main Oldest Street Here: Few Original Names of Other Survive, History of Early Thoroughfares Like Pages of Romance”, Oct 28, 1923; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1989), pg. III13
[ii] Kropp, Phoebe, “Citizens of the Past? Olvera Street and the Construction of Race and Memory in 1930s Los Angeles”, Radical History Review 81 (2001) 35-60; Deverell, William, “Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past”, UC Press, 2005
[iii] Guinn, J M. “Letters to the Times: Historic Street Names” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922), Nov 26, 1896; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1989), pg. 6
[iv] Watrous, Valerie, “City’s Main Streets Once Bore Strange and Romantic Names”, Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), Nov 22, 1925; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1989), pg. C25
[v] Cameron, Tom, “What’s in a Street Name?” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Sep 1, 1953; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1989), pg. A5
[vi] Heathcote, Basil “The Pendulum Swings Back” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Aug 10, 1930; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1989), pg. J8