How N.Y.C.'s Broadway Gave Its Name to an L.A. Street

Broadway was still known as Fort Street when this photograph, looking south down the unpaved road from north of Temple, was taken in 1885. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Why does downtown Los Angeles' grid include a street with such a distinctively New York name? Broadway may be one of L.A.'s oldest streets -- laid out by surveyor Edward O. C. Ord in 1849 -- but until 1890, Angelenos knew it only as Fort Street.

Problems with pronunciation provided the impetus for the name change. By the late 1880s, Los Angeles was home to a growing, influential minority of German immigrants -- a group whose native tongue lacked the "th" sound used in so many English words. Confusion reigned as Angelenos with German accents pronounced two intersecting streets, Fort and Fourth, identically. Even when pronounced by native English speakers, the difference was hard to discern over the city's primitive telephone lines.

Fort Street was then transitioning from residential street into retail district, and such confusion threatened to retard its development. In early 1890, a group of residents and merchants along Fort Street -- led by printer Fred Lind Alles, originally of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but then a resident of Fort and Fourth -- petitioned the city for a name change.

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When E.O.C. Ord platted out Los Angeles' streets in 1849, he named one after an adobe fort (seen on the right) named Fort Moore. Detail of Ord's 1849 plan, courtesy of the Map Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Circa 1860 view of Fort Street from Poundcake Hill. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection

Sentiment almost sank the proposition; Fort Street's name referred to Fort Moore, a hilltop battlement built during the Mexican-American War that historic-minded Angelenos (including the leadership of the Los Angeles Times) didn't want to forget.

But when a consensus eventually formed to rename Fort Street, the question became: to what? Los Angeles needed a name that would project its hopes for the future of Fort Street, which was only then emerging as a retail corridor. One suggestion was Market Street. But as Alles recalled decades later, "I felt we shouldn't copy San Francisco."

Turning away from its northern rival, Alles and his allies instead looked to the east. New York was then, as now, the nation's most populous city. But in 1890 its population of 1.5 million dwarfed Los Angeles' 50,000. For an upstart city like Los Angeles, which had just emerged from a turbulent real estate boom and bust cycle, there was no shame in purloining one of New York's most distinctive street names.

Broadway -- the Anglicized version of a Dutch name (Brede Weg) for the road that meanders through Manhattan and the Bronx, tracing an old Indian footpath -- seemed a natural choice. Just two years earlier, the city had widened Fort Street's sidewalks by five feet on each side, creating a broad, 85-foot avenue. (Many other American cities also borrowed the name -- including San Francisco.)

On Feb. 17, 1890, the matter came before the city council, which gave its unanimous approval. Two days later, when Mayor Henry Hazard signed the ordinance, Fort Street passed into historical oblivion, and Los Angeles began to sound just a little more like New York.

Special thanks to fellow KCET.org contributor Ed Fuentes for inspiring the topic of this post.

Fort Street is visible in the center of this photograph, taken circa 1868. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Detail of an 1873 lithograph showing Fort Street dead-ending at Ninth. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Circa 1889 view of Fort Street looking north from Second. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

1886 view of Fort Street, looking north from Third. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

By the late 1870s, Fort Street had become Los Angeles' most fashionable residential street. Pictured here is the house of lawyer Henry O'Melveny at Fort and Second. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1888, Los Angeles' new city hall opened on the east side of Fort Street between Second and Third. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Printer Fred Alles, pictured here in 1903, petitioned the city council to change Fort Street's name to Broadway. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

In 1896, Arthur Letts opened The Broadway Department Store at the former intersection of Fort and Fourth, and the Broadway name had become localized. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

Composite photo of present-day Broadway in New York and Los Angeles that appears when sharing this photo on social media by Flickr users Jacob-uptown (left) and Kent Kanouse (right). Used under the same Creative Commons License.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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