Laws of the Indies: Los Angeles
October 27, 2010 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Los Angeles's Crooked Heart: Ever wonder why the street grid in Los Angeles tips 36 degrees from the N/S axis once you are east of Hoover? Ask the Spaniards.

Within the triumphant American grid is another, four Spanish leagues square, that conforms as best it can to the 16th century Laws of the Indies. These 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.
posted by mandymanwasregistered (45 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Man, those illegal immigrants ruin everything.
posted by empath at 10:32 AM on October 27, 2010


Fascinating. Thanks for this.
posted by ob at 10:43 AM on October 27, 2010


"Los Angeles's Crooked Heart" totally sounds like the title of a country and western song.
posted by orange swan at 10:49 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's interesting is that many of the old hilly neighborhoods are totally unsuitable for a grid layout, yet they did it anyway. And we've got some 30% grades as a result.

Luckily they eventually figured out that you need to wrap roads alongside of a hill.
posted by hwyengr at 10:51 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


So THAT explains why the street grid in downtown San Luis Obispo is at a perfect 45 degree angle, making it impossible to define any streets as "North/South" or "East/West". Not even South Street. Don't know if I'd call it a "Crooked Heart", though. More like a Crooked Spine.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:52 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems like such an easy thing to remember, but I don't know how long it took me to not forget that when I'm heading north on a street like Grand, I'm actually heading northeast. But it's a grid and my brain is trained to think that all grids are directly aligned!
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:55 AM on October 27, 2010


I'm a total dork about both Los Angeles history and maps, so I love stuff like this.
posted by dhammond at 11:00 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


LA map nerds might want to check this out tomorrow night.

Oh no wait, crap, it's apparently already full. Damn it!
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:08 AM on October 27, 2010


The triumphant American grid is triumphant in the face of logic. What is so great about north-south orientation? Because you can simplify directions by saying "go west on Main Street and turn north on 1st Ave"? Providing light to more of a building sounds like a great idea to me, better than tying development patterns to ease of traveling directions.

Don't know if I'd call it a "Crooked Heart", though. More like a Crooked Spine.

I'm going with crooked body, with a straight-up head (the Foothill Blvd section is set on an east-west orientation). The satellite sections have their own grid orientation, making it all the weirder (from above), and the intervening lake and "mountains" will keep the city from growing into one joined mass, like LA from above.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on October 27, 2010


I wonder if those roads, lacking "sun in the eyes" issues at sunrise and sunset, have fewer accidents per year than the north-south-east-west roads.
posted by adipocere at 11:18 AM on October 27, 2010


I've noticed both Seattle (at Denny and other places) and San Francisco (Market) have a similar, angled cross grid thing going on. The Seattle case history is pretty fun considering it involved a guy named "Doc"
posted by victors at 11:20 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is really neat! Thanks!
posted by small_ruminant at 11:42 AM on October 27, 2010


Portland, OR is crooked, too. Half of the downtown streets point to true north, half point to magnetic north.
posted by peep at 11:43 AM on October 27, 2010


Old Town San Diego does the same thing, but that part of town never grew into the center of the larger city like LA did. San Diego started out in an odd place, and didn't really start taking off until the town "moved" in the 1860's, nearly 100 years after the Spanish missionaries founded the place.
posted by LionIndex at 11:46 AM on October 27, 2010


Very cool. Just yesterday I was trying to tell someone what direction to drive on one of the streets in downtown L.A. without much success. Now I know why!

My kids love it when I drive them up and down Baxter St. It's poor city planning but it's fun. I'm always tempted by the imp of the perverse to gun it and get air off the top of the hill, but I know it would end very, very badly when the road drops away at a 33% grade while I'm in the air over it.
posted by The World Famous at 11:54 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


One of the most instructive drives I have ever taken has been the full length of Vermont Ave. from Anahiem St. in Long Beach, all the way up to Griffith Park. You see absolutely EVERYTHING on that route.
posted by Danf at 11:58 AM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Except above the (Ant)Arctic Circle, during the time of year when the sun doesn't set, I don't think all sides of a house will ever get equal light.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:00 PM on October 27, 2010


I like maps. Here's a bigger version of the map illustrating the article.
posted by steef at 12:09 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Grar, for some reason I can't find a pic of the historical marker in front of the KCET studios on Sunset noting the original western border of the city.

The World Famous: just don't try Baxter St in a bus! Watch out for Cerro Gordo too.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:15 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the most instructive drives I have ever taken has been the full length of Vermont Ave. from Anahiem St. in Long Beach, all the way up to Griffith Park. You see absolutely EVERYTHING on that route.

Sepulveda's pretty rad like that, too.
posted by bluejayway at 12:32 PM on October 27, 2010


If this 36-degree tilt bothers you, you absolutely do not want to look at a map of New Orleans.
posted by localroger at 12:38 PM on October 27, 2010


I've noticed both Seattle (at Denny and other places) and San Francisco (Market) have a similar, angled cross grid thing going on. The Seattle case history is pretty fun considering it involved a guy named "Doc"

The more I know about Seattle's history, the more incredible and improbable it seems that it ever developed into a successful metropolis.
posted by schmod at 12:43 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Throw in topographic reality, and you have a real mess.

The thing that irks me about contemporary Southern California suburban planning - and maybe elsewhere as well - is that major streets will run in a certain direction, then gently curve in another. On a map it's easy enough to understand, but actually driving the streets means you can get seriously disoriented if you are not familiar with the area. Can't blame the Spaniards for that one. Fortunately I have a compass in my truck that is invaluable.

Los Angeles is not alone in Southern California for having grid streets that are interrupted by various developements. Drives me insane - you finally get to the street you need, make a left, go three blocks and...wait - dammit - the street ends at the 2100 block? WTF? I am going to 2300...how in the hell?

Thomas Brothers made small fortune off of LA drivers before Google maps and GPS.
posted by Xoebe at 1:15 PM on October 27, 2010


Don't be rediculous, the streets here tilt like that to thwart the ruinous intentions of the lizard people.

Also, linked here several years ago, the LA Conservancy's Curating The City: Wilshire Blvd. site is pretty rad.

I wonder if those roads, lacking "sun in the eyes" issues at sunrise and sunset, have fewer accidents per year than the north-south-east-west roads.

I drive between DTLA and Beverly Hills almost every day (which takes me through the grid transition along Olympic/Wilshire/6th/3rd/Beverly/Temple), and in my experience the answer is 'no'.
posted by carsonb at 1:47 PM on October 27, 2010


Thomas Brothers made small fortune off of LA drivers before Google maps and GPS.

My Thomas Guide is as important to my vehicle as its spare tire. Gmaps and GPS are great (gmaps especially for it's beloved traffic indicators), but those screens are tiny and I have to be somewhere 24 miles away like 30 minutes ago!
posted by carsonb at 1:50 PM on October 27, 2010


Speaking of Wilshire, there's a group walking the entire length of it (15.6 mi) in a few weeks.

And yes, I can't imagine getting around this city without my trusty Thomas Guide.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:00 PM on October 27, 2010


hwyengr: "What's interesting is that many of the old hilly neighborhoods are totally unsuitable for a grid layout, yet they did it anyway. And we've got some 30% grades as a result.."

Hah, 30% is practically level around here. Try driving up a 37% grade.
posted by octothorpe at 2:12 PM on October 27, 2010


Except above the (Ant)Arctic Circle, during the time of year when the sun doesn't set, I don't think all sides of a house will ever get equal light.

Imagine a house on the equator, set at 45°. On the equinoxes, the sun passes directly overhead. This means each side gets equal light over the course of the day. Before noon on the equinox, the NE and SE sides are equally lit, and the NW and SW sides are in shadow. After noon, it's the other way around.

During northern hemisphere summer, the sun will pass north of overhead. This means the NW and NE sides will get a lot of direct sunlight and the SW and SE sides won't get much or any. But during southern hemisphere summer, the situation will be reversed: the SW and SE sides will get direct sunlight at the expense of the NW and NE sides.

If northern hemisphere summer and southern hemisphere summer are equally long (and they are, aren't they?), the house will break even over the course of the year.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:12 PM on October 27, 2010


Damn you octothorpe all making me homesick.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:13 PM on October 27, 2010


During northern hemisphere summer, the sun will pass north of overhead. This means the NW and NE sides will get a lot of direct sunlight and the SW and SE sides won't get much or any.

This is only true for latitudes below 23 degrees (or wherever the tropics are located). Above that, in the northern hemisphere, the sun will still be slightly south of overhead at noon, and gradually move northward towards the end of the day (and rise in a more northerly position in the morning). The extreme of this is above the arctic circle where the path of the sun would trace a circle around the dome of the sky during the course of the day.
posted by LionIndex at 3:57 PM on October 27, 2010


Also, what the fuck's going on on Vermont today? Closed near Santa Monica for no reason!
posted by klangklangston at 3:57 PM on October 27, 2010


I hail from the northeast where city planning bears a decided bovine influence. These grids you speak of strike me as unnatural and probably immoral.
posted by maryr at 3:59 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dont forget bicknell hill if you're talking about la. Right near jeff ho's old surf/skate shop.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:58 PM on October 27, 2010


Thomas Brothers made small fortune off of LA drivers before Google maps and GPS.
My Thomas Guide is as important to my vehicle as its spare tire.


Yeah, in my experience, they're still very much worth having. Buying their statewide California guide is one of the best purchases I've made in the last 3 years. A GPS is nice, but I often find that studying a map and getting acquainted with a region is both more practical and enjoyable than following turn-by-turn directions.

And while Google Maps is awesome (and I'd love to have the features it offers in a good mobile device), even now there are places where you can't get signal, and the Thomas Guide doesn't run out of power. I think there'll be a place for them for a while yet to come.
posted by weston at 7:23 PM on October 27, 2010


I'm used to cities having off-kilter streets because of the Old Town being laid out parallel to a river or railroad tracks or old Native American hunting trails or whatever, but this is a new one on me. Neat! It reminds me of when I found out that The Wiggle in San Francisco follows an old river valley.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:27 PM on October 27, 2010


Does any of this explain why Harold Green(e) and Ann Martin look exactly the same as when I skeddalded for San Francisco a couple decades ago?
posted by goofyfoot at 10:16 PM on October 27, 2010


Wow, I had no idea! I guess this explains San Fernando, too? And maybe Baldwin Park/West Covina?

One of the most instructive drives I have ever taken has been the full length of Vermont Ave. from Anahiem St. in Long Beach, all the way up to Griffith Park. You see absolutely EVERYTHING on that route.

Oh, man, I thought I was crazy--I once did the same thing on Diamond Bar/Mission/Van Buren Blvd. through Pomona/Ontario/Riverside. Not quite as cool, but still pretty interesting.

Another good one might be Main St./Valley Blvd.--from Wilmington all the way up through Downtown, then all the way out to the Ontario Airport. Probably take you all day, though.
posted by equalpants at 11:46 PM on October 27, 2010


On the equator/in the tropics, aren't the eaves going to prevent the sides from getting any sun? (/silly pedantry)
posted by five fresh fish at 11:49 PM on October 27, 2010


So, why the abrupt shift at Fig? I wonder this all the time.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:19 AM on October 28, 2010


Er, Hoover. Sorry, USC Northward commeuter confusion.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:20 AM on October 28, 2010


This is only true for latitudes below 23 degrees (or wherever the tropics are located).

Right. Hence: "Imagine a house on the equator."

On the equator/in the tropics, aren't the eaves going to prevent the sides from getting any sun? (/silly pedantry)

Only near noon, when the sun is literally overhead (or close too). When the sun is rising in the east, it will sneak in under the eastern eaves, and vice versa when it's setting in the west.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:49 AM on October 28, 2010


This is a fantastic piece of information where 16th century completely beats 19th century's ass. I can sense there are some of you out there who thing a north-south orientation of the grid is a good thing. Well it isn't.

In Brussels, Belgium, some neighbourhoods were designed in the 19th century by, presumably, people who care more for a pretty pattern on their sat picture (oh, wait, they didn't even have any!) than simple human comfort and needs. Just try to find a good flat in an east-west running street, which is pure abomination in terms of traffic (low sun) and lighting conditions (basically no light the whole day, the southern houses shielding it off). Some rooms are dark, others overheated.

I say, ancient Spaniards were much cleverer and I wonder why anyone would have anything against a 45 (or 36) degree tilt from N-S axis. That said, most European cities are not built on a grid, but presumably on the outlines of the ruins of cathedrals wherever they chose to fall.
posted by Laotic at 9:09 AM on October 28, 2010


That said, most European cities are not built on a grid, but presumably on the outlines of the ruins of cathedrals wherever they chose to fall.

Interestingly, the Romans built their settlements on grids, and those grids form the hearts of many European cities. It's the Medeival and Renaissance folks that messed things up. If you look at a map of a Medieval or Renaissance city that was built on the site of a Roman city, you can often see the Roman section, then the Medieval and Renaissance sections, and then the modern sections radiating out from there.

For example, if you look at Firenze from above, you can see where Julius Caesar established the town in 59 BC at Piazza Della Repubblica, with the Roman grid of streets (having N/S/E/W orientation). Then, zooming out for a broader view, you can see the chaotic streets of Medieval and Renaissance Firenze growing out from the Roman town. Then, zooming out even further, you can see various attempts at urban planning radiating out over the centuries from the center of the city.

It all depends on when a city was built, and by whom. the Roman army was big on order and its settlements reflected that. Even in a city like Enna (which figured prominently in both the First and Second Punic Wars), which looks like a crazy maze of medieval streets, a satellite view reveals a grid.

Likewise, London was settled by Rome in 43 AD on a grid. It's just that the modern European cities that originated as Roman settlements have outgrown those original grids and, over the centuries, city planners have not attempted to keep the grid going.
posted by The World Famous at 9:48 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Right. Hence: "Imagine a house on the equator."


Right. That's why I was quoting your statement about a house in the northern hemisphere and responding to that.
posted by LionIndex at 11:41 AM on October 28, 2010


Ah, I see my mistake now. Apologies.
posted by LionIndex at 11:53 AM on October 28, 2010


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