Laws That Shaped L.A.: Why Los Angeles Isn't a Beach Town

1937 mural by Buckley Mac-Gurrin depicting the founding of Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Launching today and posting each week, the Laws That Shaped L.A. will spotlight regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated by a variety of experts we've been polling - are considered to have been either beneficial to the city or malevolent. The laws may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

During the course of the column's run, laws covering a wide swatch of topics will be featured. These range from immigration to ecology, taxation to trademarks, public safety to public art, civil rights to public health, transportation to housing, ballot initiatives to intellectual property and much, much more.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.
Law: Laws of the Indies
Year: 1573
Jurisdiction: Spain (King Phillip II)
Nominated by: James Rojas

Los Angeles - second largest city in the nation, gateway to the Pacific, city of quartz, city of the future - should really have been located in Long Beach.

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You know, Long Beach? That burgh to the south where something great happens every time you visit? Close to Pedro? Big on bike lanes, parades, Snoop, the Pyramid, a port?

That's the provocative assertion - minus all the references - of renowned city planner James Rojas.

"The Laws of the Indies was a book created by the Spanish to colonize the New World," Rojas says. "It's relevant to Los Angeles in that it placed L.A. where it's at today."

Issued in 1573 by King Phillip II, Laws is regarded as the first urban planning manual to reach the Americas. Previous and subsequent iterations of Laws codified municipal matters ranging from the existential to the essential to the mundane.

The 1512 version of Laws, for instance, mandated improved treatment of Native populations encountered by the Spanish. Suffice to say, these rules were not always followed locally nor well-enforced by a distant and oft-profiting Crown.**

So how does Los Angels as Long Beach fit into all this?

Because, as Rojas explains, the Laws of the Indies dictated that Spanish New World cities be constructed twenty miles from the sea ("to avoid any attacks from pirates," Rojas says), near a freshwater source ("the L.A. River") and close to a native tribe ("for labor").

That explains Olvera Street and its surroundings. This historic plaza core (or close enough, anyway) of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de la Porciuncula - L.A.'s original name from 1781 - is situated thirty miles as the crow flies from the Santa Monica Bay and just a Zanja Madre away from the L.A River and similarly near the then-site of Yangna, the largest Tongva village.
The Old Plaza. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
But if then-Governor Felipe de Neve had been the representative of a different Age of Exploration European monarchy - say the Dutch or the English - then La Placita would likely have been elsewhere instead - such as somewhere near where the Queen Mary is docked today.

"If another group had colonized L.A. they would have put their settlement down in Long Beach," Rojas says. "That would have been a more perfect location. Long Beach had two rivers - the San Gabriel and the L.A., an abundant supply of resources like food and water and there was a bigger population of native tribes in that region."

Instead, this Long Beach History Timeline indicates it took until 1882 for modern, coastal Long Beach to begin to take shape, although the area was included as part of a larger land grant from Spain three years following the founding of L.A.

Compared to the Dutch and the English, Rojas says the Spanish had a much different philosophy of settlement goals and patterns. "The Dutch were more about the resources and ports, the English had a whole different way," he says, "but the Spanish made a really urban attempt to capture the New World."

That's due to sweeping geo-political-religious events that took hundreds of years to unfold, beginning a millennium or so ago.

"The whole idea was that the Laws of the Indies came out of the Spanish kicking the Moors out of Spain, city by city," Rojas says. "That was their logic how to conquer, that was what they knew, that's what they were going to do in the New World."

Not the most romantic notion of the birth of American urban planning, but one that led to places such as Mexico City, Lima, Peru, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico and so many other once-Spanish-held spots.

As mentioned above, the impact of the Laws of the Indies extended far beyond only the selection of a city's site. Before signing off for the week, we'll leave with another city planning legacy - or memory - of these consequential Spanish regs. That legacy? City grids.

"The Laws of the Indies even indicated the street pattern," Rojas says. "The plaza was the center of the settlement and the cardinal points of the plaza faced north-south-east-west."

Rojas adds: "That's why the grid of L.A. changes at Hoover and at Indiana," referring to a pair of eastside city streets.

As KCET.org contributor D.J. Waldie explained in the L.A Times these "four Spanish leagues square" of Spanish streets in and around Downtown were subsequently interlaced with a Jeffersonian, north-south American pattern.
1929 map displays the angled grid pattern around downtown. Note the change in angle at Hoover towards the left of the map. Image courtesy of the USC Digital Library.
Waldie's piece noted that due to the ebbing and flowing of the (pre-concreted) L.A. River the Spanish grid was oriented 36-degrees from compass points north and south - not quite but close enough to the 45-degrees demanded by the Laws.

Whatever the actual angle, Rojas cites the original blocks' orientation as a leading example of how the Spanish grid was designed more in keeping with nature than the grids of other empires and the U.S.-designed grids that would soon follow.

"The Spanish wanted to have wind tunnels, they wanted to have more shade and more walkable streets," Rojas says.

Those weren't the top priorities of a recently, revolutionary-born United States.

"The thinking was," Rojas says, "'We're going to grid out this space, we're going to sell property and we want to do it really quickly. We're not concerned about the walking conditions.'"

Now that, at least, sounds like L.A.

To suggest a Law That Shaped LA, or to suggest someone else to ask for their key law or laws, please leave a comment below, respond via Departures Facebook page and Twitter feed, or email editor Jeremy Rosenberg at arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Image: 1937 mural by Buckley Mac-Gurrin depicting the 1781 founding of Los Angeles. The mural once appeared in the Los Angeles Hall of Records, but is now in storage. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.


**Future columns in this series will further address Native American and immigration-related laws.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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"This historic plaza core (or close enough, anyway) of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de la Porciuncula - L.A.'s original name from 1781 - is situated thirty miles as the crow flies from the Santa Monica Bay..."

How do you figure that? When I click through to the Google Maps distance mapping tool, I get slightly over 14 miles from the Old Plaza/Placita Olvera to the beach at Playa del Rey.

Nonetheless, great piece. I knew the Laws of the Indies were the reason for LA's angled street grid, but was not aware that they dictated its inland location, as well. I'm looking forward to the next installment in this series!

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Pirates? Really? Guess they threw that book into the water when they founded SD and SF...

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Pretty sure he meant 30 miles to the San Pedro bay, which is where Long Beach is situated. Also, a little misleading on the era in which the due north/south street grid was built, which happened after 1850, when Los Angeles and the rest of California was forcefully taken by the US in the Mexican-American War, 75 years after the "revolutionary birth" of the United States. But a fascinating article overall, and the first time I've heard geography and ecology thrown into the mix of the grid discussion. I too wonder why SD and SF weren't founded in similar ways, though I can only imagine that those cities grew up around their missions, whereas Los Angeles was founded specifically as a city, away from the local mission San Gabriel (pure speculation though).

Speaking of which, the end of this article on real estate speculation makes me want to propose a Law That Shaped LA; codified housing discrimination, whether it be during post-war classic segregation or even before/after. I've heard of stories like the creation of African American communities in Altadena through discriminatory housing practices (not LA, I know), and similarly for Mexican American communities in East LA (interestingly both unincorporated areas to this day), but have never known the full truth of whether it was socially enforced or legally mandated.

Finally, you ought to ask ol' Creek Freak Linton what he thinks about all this, the man is a walking history lesson. Thanks for this series, keep up the good work.

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Not to start an Eastside vs. Westside flame, but Hoover Street is the western edge of the original 1850 City of Los Angeles incorporation. I am pretty sure it not an "eastside street" as the author implies in his discussion of the original LA street grid.

Also, the LA River before flood control some years ran west across alluvial basin to the Santa Monica Bay at entering the Bay at what is now the Ballona Creek Chanel, so maybe Downtown LA would have been at present day Santa Monica or Venice!

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One of the most important reasons for LA's location is water:

Most of the LA River's water comes from the slopes of the mountains surrounding the San Fernando Valley. Though there is runoff in surface channels immediately after storms, most of the water sinks into the loose sand-and-gravel alluvium that fills the Valley, and becomes part of the vast trillion-gallon underground reservoir that is the San Fernando Valley Aquifer.

The LA River only becomes a year-round stream at the top of the Glendale Narrows, where the San Fernando Valley Aquifer comes to the surface.

LA is sited where the Narrows first opens out onto a large, fertile plain, suitable for irrigated agriculture.

Further south, the river water disappears once again into another alluvial basin, the LA Coastal Aquifer. During the dry season, it doesn't come back to the surface until just before the river channel meets the ocean.

As for the street grid, the original pueblo actually has three street grids - one north of the Plaza, in the area that is today's Chinatown; one south of the plaza (and west of Main St.); and one more outside the original settlement area (but still inside the original pueblo boundaries.

The first two were laid out by the original settlers - and neither of them match the Law of The Indies' prescribed 45 degree angle.

(They were most likely meant to approximate the diagonal layout specified by the Law, while accommodating the hills that border the town to the north and west.)

The third grid - the one visible at pueblo boundaries like Hoover - was laid out in the 1850s by the new American regime, to parcel out "donation lots" available for development. I'm not sure why the American town fathers chose that particular alignment, but I doubt it had much to do with the Law of the Indies. :-)

All three grids can be clearly seen, along with notes bout their alignment, in the Ord-Hancock survey map of 1857.

And the original name of the pueblo was simply La Reyna de Los Angeles - "the Queen of the Angels".

The longer, more complicated name is a creation of later history writers, who concatenated the new city's name with the name of the river (Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles de Porciùncula - "Our Lady of the Angels of Porciùncula") and tacked on descriptive phrases like "el pueblo" ("the town") that aren't really part of the official name. For further details, see "Los Angeles, California: The Question of the City's Original Spanish Name" by Theodore E. Treutlein, in The Founding Documents of Los Angeles, ed. Doyce B. Nunis Jr., 2004.

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Expanding on LA MapNerd pointing out the influence of the LA River and the value of the 1849 Ord-Hancock survey Map, on which you can see that the splayed array of streets between Broadway and the LA River follows the array of the fields. The array of the fields is defined by the zanjas and the pattern of the zanjas is directly downslope across the floodplain of the river meandering down an alluvial fan. The rectilinear street grid west of Broadway is aligned roughly with the margin of the stream terrace extending between Broadway and Bunker Hill. It is conveniently aligned for gravity distribution from the Zanja Madre, a branch of which ran down Olive St.


Yes, Presidio and Mission San Francisco, were sited strategically and were not pueblos. But Branciforte, was a pueblo founded in 1797 less than 2 miles from the ocean. Today it is part of Santa Cruz.


A final point regarding Long Beach having two rivers, it only had one at the time. Until 1812, downstream of the pueblo, the Los Angeles River turned to the west, discharging into Santa Monica Bay via a maze of cinegas and Ballona Creek.

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The site of Los Angeles was an unfortunate one for two reasons. First, as author Rosenberg states, the Spanish authorities chose the site for its proximity to a river *and* to a labor source (Tongva and other tribelets within a few miles of the site). The Spanish stole not only the natives' land but also their labor, the latter being a resource that, in bulk, was a necessity in the 18th century for creating settlements that could support hundreds to thousands of settlers. (See http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Chumash/LosAngeles.html) Second, as Rosenberg states, the pueblo site was seen as supportive of a settlement intended to be primarily agricultural. But in the vicinity of that site, the L.A. River flows over a broad alluvial floodplain (and with extreme seasonal variation), so the watercourse would require decades of engineering to protect the investments in local agriculture. That engineering would sever the ecological tie between the young city and its environment.

Regarding the pueblo Branciforte, in the 20th century to be known as East Santa Cruz, it was conceived and originally settled as a "villa," that is, as a community to house military veterans and "forced" settlers (such as convicts on probation). The purpose behind the villa's settlement (residents were expected to assist in the military defense of that part of the California coast) was unlike that of the other two original Spanish "secular" (that is, not "attached" to a mission or presidio) pueblos, at Los Angeles and San Jose, in Alta California, where agriculture was to be conducted and traditional families were promoted and supported. Branciforte's (meager) housing was paid for and built by the Spanish Crown's government in New Spain (Mexico), and the villa's needs were subsidized for five years, 1787-92. Soon after that period, the settlers held their own election for alcalde, the first such event in Alta California. American and Russian ex-pats eventually became key members of the early Branciforte community while under Mexican rule. (See http://www.villadebranciforte.org/history.htm)

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One more little thing regarding any commentary or history about the Spanish interacting closely with Native Americans in Alta California starting in the 1770s: remember that the Spanish military and colonial authorities had been confronting Native American peoples across 1000s of miles of territory in the Caribbean and in Central and South America since the years of the voyages of Columbus. In the almost 300 years between first contact and the 1770s in California, the Spanish had gained lots of institutional experience in how to approach, conquer, and dominate the less materially advanced peoples of the Americas. As of the 1770s, the pattern of "tribelet" settlement (that is, no more than dozens to low 100s of persons per village) by the Native Americans in California made them particularly easy prey for marginalization, even extermination, by the successive arrivals of (unenlightened) Spanish, Mexican, and American civilizations. The "Age of Exploration" was actually a fevered competition for ethnic hegemony and for resources across the globe spurred by the Europeans' discovery of the power of their combination of unchecked self-organizing technological development harnessed to Europe's various related flavors of mercantilism. See Jared Diamond's book 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' for an account of most of that story.

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San Diego's pueblo was "founded" under Mexican rule. The Spanish had originally settled the place as a presidio and mission.