Like some of the very people who drive on them, a few Los Angeles streets have achieved the height of fame. Sunset Boulevard lent its evocative name to Billy Wilder's classic film noir. Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard appears on millions of television screens each New Year's Day as the route of the Rose Parade. And to many around the world, Pacific Coast Highway instantly conjures up images of surfers, convertibles, and movie stars. (In L.A., we're more likely to think of traffic, wildfires, and landslides.)
But fame belies the humble origins of these celebrity streets. Horses once casually left droppings where shoppers stroll today along Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. A dusty wagon road alongside the Ostrich Farm Railroad eventually became Sunset Boulevard. A century ago, Los Angeles was a much emptier place, and what today are major thoroughfares were then dusty cow paths through open countryside or pockmarked roads rutted by wagon wheels.
Even in dense downtown Los Angeles, street conditions brought complaints to Angelenos' lips. "After heavy winter rains mud was from six inches to two feet deep," groaned merchant Harris Newmark in his memoirs, "while during the summer, dust piled up to about the same extent." Mud often mingled with contributions from livestock. Dust was such a problem that street sprinkling enterprises were counted among the city's public utilities. Angelenos like Newmark would have to wait until 1887 for the city's first paved streets: Main, Spring, and Fort (now Broadway).
Macadam paving, followed by concrete and asphalt surfaces, eventually helped Los Angeles' roads shake their rustic character. But the following images -- culled from the region's rich photographic archives -- show some of Southern California's most famous streets before they achieved stardom.
Note: Despite the title, not all the photos here necessarily depict unpaved roads. As Matthew Roth of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives noted in an email, "dirty roads with a lot of gravel strewn across them" are often mistaken for dirt roads.
Colorado Boulevard (Pasadena)
Santa Monica Boulevard
Third Street (Santa Monica)
Hollywood Freeway (Route 101)
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.