D.J. Waldie: Los Angeles in Maps

Roundup: Talking About History

[D.J. Waldie is a contributing editor for Opinion. He wrote the forward to the just-published book, "Los Angeles in Maps," by Glen Creason with additional essays by Dydia DeLyser, Joe Linton, William J. Warren and Morgan P. Yates, and photography by Julie Shafer.]

As a boy, I paged through the old Renie Atlas of Los Angeles streets and later the Thomas Guide. The fact that there was a map linking my Lakewood neighborhood to the vast grid of Los Angeles made my suburban location more real to me. I naively assumed that the maps didn't lie. I expected to see avenues pointing due north and south and major streets going east and west. That's how nearly all cities were laid out in the West, unless an accident of coastline or unsuitable ground prevented it. But not Los Angeles, whose heart was made crooked.

Downtown Los Angeles is cocked about 36 degrees from the north-south grid that was Thomas Jefferson's dream for filling in the empty places on the blank page of the continent. Jefferson imagined his rational geometry penetrating forests, fording rivers and passing across prairies, leaving behind a national design of townships and sections that extended uniformly from the Alleghenies to the Pacific Ocean. The West's conquest (and its conversion into marketable real estate) began in 1785 when Congress adopted Jefferson's scheme to lay over the disorderly wilderness his rigidly right angle grid, where north is always at the top, south always at the bottom.

The streets of downtown Los Angeles have a different dream. They do not lead to the cardinal points of the compass but to the uncertain spaces in between. Ambiguity is written on our landscape....

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