Was Western Avenue Once L.A.'s Western Boundary?

Western Ave. as a dusty county highway in 1894. Courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collections, Autry National Center: LS.14502.

It seems logical enough -- Western Avenue, as the oft-repeated explanation goes, is so named because it once formed Los Angeles' western boundary. But is there any truth to this just-so story?

Some streets did once mark L.A.'s western city limit. Most notably, West Boulevard's name dates to 1915, when the city's annexation of the Palms district made the street the city's western boundary. And Hoover Street runs along the westernmost limit of L.A.'s original pueblo lands. Until 1892, much of Hoover Street bore a different name: West Boundary Street.

But Western Avenue never did define the city's western boundary, as a brief glance at a map of Los Angeles annexations confirms. On April 1, 1896, the Los Angeles city limit lay a mile and a half to the east. The following day, as Los Angeles absorbed its so-called Western Addition, the city limit jumped far over Western Avenue, landing a half-mile to the west.

Photos: Aliso Street, Before It Became the 101 Freeway

Aliso Street in 1899, looking west toward downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

When C. C. Pierce balanced his tripod on the roof of the Maier and Zobelein Brewery on Feb. 22, 1899, and pointed his camera west toward the city of Los Angeles, he never could have envisioned how time would obliterate the scene he was capturing. Perhaps he could accept that steel towers would one day supplant the two hulking structures whose clocktowers then pierced the the city's skyline -- the county courthouse on the left and the high school on the right. But how could this 19th-century photographer ever comprehend the idea of a freeway -- automobiles speeding over concrete at sixty miles per hour -- where Aliso Street, that broad avenue running down the center of the photo, had reigned for so long?

Aliso Street was already an ancient route when Pierce photographed it in 1899. Sergeant Jose Arguello noted its existence on his 1786 diseño of the newly founded pueblo, describing it as the main highway between the pueblo and Mission San Gabriel. In fact, it almost certainly predated both, as the Spanish likely repurposed a well-worn footpath used by the Gabrielino (Tongva) inhabitants of Yang-na. Soon the highway rambled through a matrix of vineyards and by the 1830s it had acquired its name, Aliso Road, in honor of a huge sycamore tree that shaded the wine cellars of Don Jean-Louis Vignes.

The vineyards of Aliso Road might have been the pride of Los Angeles (the city was an early leader in viticulture), but a more shameful episode in the city's history transpired just south of the road. in 1836, the ayuntamiento (town council) forcibly relocated the remaining inhabitants of Yang-na to a parcel near Aliso's intersection with Alameda. Already decimated by disease and decades of missionization, Yangna's population now mingled with Indian laborers from across Southern California in what became known as the "rancheria of poblanos." It survived only ten years. In 1845, responding to complaints that the rancheria's inhabitants had been bathing in the town's zanjas, the ayuntamiento forced the villagers to abandon their thatched huts once again and move across the river to the present-day site of Boyle Heights.

Soon after the American conquest of California, an influx of newcomers transformed the old road into a major business corridor. In 1855, the city rerouted part of the highway to straighten its approach to the river. What had been "a willow-bordered, picturesque little lane...[that] paralleled [Vignes'] grape-arbor as far as the river-bank," in the words of memoirist Harris Newmark, was widened into Aliso Street. The older route survived as Old Aliso Road (later renamed Lyon Street) and veered off at an angle at the Vignes winery.

When East Hollywood's Barnsdall Art Park Was an Olive Orchard

Some of the olive trees of Barnsdall Park, pictured here in 1929, date from 1890, when the site was planted as a commercial olive orchard. Courtesy of the Adelbert Bartlett Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Before the Hollyhock House, there were olive trees -- a veritable army of them, some 1,225, each spaced 20 feet apart, marching up the hillside in an orderly grid formation. Above them rose the unconquered crown of the hill, which stood bald and barren some 89 feet above the flatlands of East Hollywood.

This arboreal phalanx -- in reality, a commercial olive orchard -- was the work of Joseph H. Spires, a Canadian immigrant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1886 and soon became the real estate broker for the Los Angeles Pacific electric railway. Around 1890, Spires bought a 36-acre tract encompassing a round, flattened hillock near the townsite of Prospect Park (today, East Hollywood).

Spires likely wanted the site for its development potential. The hill's summit offered unobstructed, commanding views of the Los Angeles basin, from the eastern Santa Monica Mountains (then still the private reserve of Griffith J. Griffith) to the Pacific shore -- an ideal place for a grand hotel. But such development was still years off. So to ensure a more immediate economic return on the land, Spires planted an orchard on the hill's slopes, leaving only its summit bare and unplanted.

His choice of crop -- olives -- might have been unusual for what was then called the Cahuenga Valley. In nearby Hollywood, scented lemon groves were all the rage. But olive cultivation, if successful, promised three to four times as much revenue -- about $1,000 per acre annually. Spires' olive trees also resonated with growing comparisons between Southern California and the Mediterranean, voiced most famously by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1891 book, "Our Italy."

Where Is Chavez Ravine, Exactly?

Chavez Ravine the canyon is clearly marked on this 1966 USGS topo map, a landform distinct from the hilly terrain now occupied by Dodger Stadium. Courtesy of the USGS.

Chavez Ravine does exist.

Glance at the USGS' topographic map of Los Angeles, and you'll find a narrow canyon labeled "Chavez Ravine," a steep-walled arroyo that arcs down from the highlands of Elysian Park toward the floodplain of the Los Angeles River.

And yet, most Angelenos are unaware of this canyon -- or at least its name.

For many, "Chavez Ravine" recalls a night of baseball under a warm Los Angeles sky; it was the only name a proud Los Angeles Angels team used for Dodger Stadium, their temporary home from 1962 to 1965. To others, the words "Chavez Ravine" recall news photographs of four sheriff's deputies dragging a defiant Aurora Arechiga Vargas out of her family's condemned Malvina Avenue home. And for a few surviving residents, "Chavez Ravine" brings to mind that bucolic-Mexican American community -- actually three distinct neighborhoods named Bishop, La Loma, and Palo Verde -- nestled in the Elysian Hills.

But despite their strong associations with the name, none of those memories is located in the actual landform known as Chavez Ravine. Instead, the neighborhoods of Bishop, La Loma, and Palo Verde (as well as the stadium that replaced them) actually occupied two adjacent ravines of their own -- canyons that early maps refer to as Sulphur Ravine and Cemetery Ravine.

And so when earthmovers buried Chavez Ravine the community beneath a million tons of rock, dirt, and Bermuda grass, they spared Chavez Ravine the canyon.

The ravine formed millions of years ago as an ancestral stream channel of the Los Angeles River, according to unpublished research by USC geologist James Dolan. After tectonic uplift forced the river around the Elysian Hills, the channel became a dry arroyo. The ravine acquired its name in more recent times, soon after the city granted 82 acres of nearby real estate to Julian Chaves [also Chavez] in 1844.

Past generations of Angelenos knew Chavez Ravine well as the home of the city's first arboretum (1893); then a sanatorium for tubercular patients (1902); and later still a naval reserve armory (1940).

Making the Public Realm Unwelcoming in Santa Monica, Lancaster

Guess which wins in the contest for public space: aesthetic interest, comfort, or fear?

Some months ago, the city of Santa Monica, which operates the Big Blue Bus, began installing new street furniture designed by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects. According to news reports, the $7-million project took an unusually long five years to go from concepts to the installation of new bus stops.

Most riders hated them. From a driver's perspective, the vaguely vegetablish bus stops and minimalist seats had a certain whimsy. Street furniture in a high style but visually unobtrusive when seen at 35 miles an hour. For bus riders, the little canopies cast a handkerchief-sized patch of shade. The seats at the stops were cramped and uncomfortable and too few.

Aesthetic interest beat modest rider comfort. (If you've ever sat on a backless bus bench for 45 minutes waiting under the actinic light of late August, you know what one of the circles of Hell is like.)

We Are All Michael Brown

The ongoing conversations about the meaning of Michael Brown, the black teenager killed this month by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, have yielded many other conversations that go well beyond police-community relations. It's distressingly familiar, the racial soul-searching prompted by a tragic encounter between a black man and police. Most distressing is how good we've gotten at this in the last twenty years: we hit all the right notes pretty quickly, draw the right conclusions about root causes, and then file it all away in a collective memory that we seem not to even have.

Transforming any of the conversations into public policy is, in this terribly polarized political atmosphere more polarized than ever by race, nearly impossible. Conservatives have gotten very good at pushing back on these discussions, too; the instant they sense any racial soul-searching spreading past the borders of a state or two, they send out the troops to loudly pontificate about personal responsibility, black criminality, and the essential need for law and order under any circumstances, including peaceful protests. It reminds me of how Walmart sends out anti-union troops, like a hazmat team, to quash any talk amongst its employees about joining a union. None of that justice stuff, it pollutes initiative. Better to strive for inclusion rather than actually achieve it.

Photographic Magic: Images of Ventura County's Coast Trigger Something Deeper

Sea lions, intertwined. | Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch

My friends Steve Munch and Stephanie Hogue just published a book of photographs. It's called, "Latitudes: Coastal Photo Explorations." At this very moment, a copy rests on my lap. Its happy heft makes me, well, happy. Slowly turning its pages, my mind drifts.

This is not a shameless shill for Steve and Stephanie's book (though their photos are achingly beautiful). With full disclosure in mind, I wrote a few short paragraphs in their book, but mostly my words just get in the way of what matters. This post really has little to do with Steve and Stephanie's photographs, although it is their photographs that are currently performing the magic that the right picture does. The right picture sings. It reaches directly into your heart and plucks an impossible array of strings. Sometimes -- and these are the best times -- it reaches deep into your memories, and then, who knows? The right photograph takes you back, and whisks you forward and places you firmly in the present. Time travel exists.

Steve and Stephanie's photographs focus on California's incomparable coastline and seas. Many were taken right here at home in Ventura County, which, I feel, is an incomparable gem along California's incomparable coast. There are photographs of sleek dolphins, and fog-shrouded piers, and tiny mustard flowers that somehow thrive in places washed with salt and raked by crazed winds. There is beauty in that alone.

Whose Happy Home? Measuring Satisfaction With Where We Live

Chosen Land
| Photo: MS Gallery

Sommer Mathis, writing for at the Atlantic's CityLab site, frames the early results of a new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll under the headline "Suburbs Are Still the Happiest." Her reading of the numbers has a slightly different word choice: "When it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king."

Measuring public happiness has become something of a fad lately. As a recent NPR piece reported, getting beyond the Gross Domestic Product to something more intimate has been the aim of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 2011. The OECD's Better Life Index, now with more than 4 million respondents in 180 countries, has tried to quantify what makes a nation happy and unhappy.

Is it happy or is it satisfied? They're not exactly the same. Perhaps, it's something else.

The Lost Bridle Paths of Beverly Hills

Bridle paths ran down the center of Sunset Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, intersecting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Courtesy of the Beverly Hills Public Library Historical Collection.

Across the Southland in the early 1920s, horses were vanishing from public streets, their once-essential motive power made obsolete by the internal combustion engine. Buses replaced horse-drawn omnibuses. Automobile taxis replaced horse-drawn hacks. Heavy-duty trucks replaced horse-drawn wagons.

But Beverly Hills bucked the trend.

From the early 1920s through the 1960s, pathways dedicated to horse travel ran down the center of several Beverly Hills streets. One stretched from the city's eastern to western boundary, meandering through town down the center of Sunset Boulevard. Another occupied the median of Rodeo Drive, where it replaced an abandoned Pacific Electric trolley line that once connected Santa Monica Boulevard with the Beverly Hills Hotel. Two more snaked their way up Coldwater and Benedict canyons.

Laid with decomposed granite and buffered from automobile traffic by curbs and ornamental plants, these bridle paths served several purposes. They satisfied the recreational urges of the city's many equine enthusiasts. They reinforced the image of Beverly Hills as a place of wealth and privilege. They preserved the rustic feel of a city that was fervently carving itself out of the open countryside of Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas. And lastly, though saddle horses were never as common on city streets as draft horses, they nostalgically recalled that dying breed -- the urban horse.

The Paradoxes That Keep Some L.A. Neighborhoods 'Park Poor'

Lawrence Clark Powell, author and literary critic, remembered that his mother had arrived from back East at the turn of the 20th century carrying her horticultural triumph -- a geranium plant.

The geranium was an exotic flower where she had grown up, a tender plant kept in the parlor during winter. She had kept her prize geranium on her lap on the long, transcontinental train trip. And when she stepped off the station platform in Los Angeles, she saw geraniums in bloom in nearly every vacant lot. They were as common as weeds. In humiliation (and perhaps with some relief), she threw her pampered plant away.

You might say that we've been tossing out the geraniums ever since. In its abundance, Los Angeles is a kind of garden, after all. Why would anyone need or want any more of nature?