Seduced by maps

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Glen Creason, the map librarian at the central branch of Los Angeles Public Library, has assembled a cartographic history of the city and the region in a new book - Los Angeles in Maps. It's part of a growing city-in-maps series from Rizzoli.

I had the luck to write a forward to Los Angeles in Maps and so had an early look at the color plates and historical essays. These were written by Creason, but the book also includes interpretive essays by Dydia DeLyser, Joe Linton, William J. Warren, and Morgan P. Yates.

Julie Shafer took the seductive photographs of the maps, which mostly come from the Central Library's own collection. They were the subject of an exhibition at the library in 2008, which Creason curated. (The Central Library map collection is one of the largest of any American public library, with over 80,000 maps and 3,000 atlases and gazetteers.)

And these maps really are seductive, in precisely the way that novels are. Like a good story, a map is a fiction. It pretends to tell you where you are but actually tells you something else. Every map is a miniature world filled with apparently unambiguous detail. But that's a fiction, too.

Los Angeles in maps is particularly disorienting, one consequence of colliding imperial imaginations.

The plan of the Spanish colonial city of 1781 is oriented to the in-between points of the compass: northwest, southwest, northeast, and southeast. The little ridge along the Rio de Porciúncula on which the city settled didn't permit perfect conformity to the 45-degree rule. The grid of the Ciudad de los Angeles was cocked at about 36 degrees from true north and south. (If you don't believe me, stand on the compass rose set into the sidewalk in front of the Biltmore Hotel and see which way is due north.)

After 1876, the newly American city built out on the national grid, where the absolutes of due north and south reflected Thomas Jefferson's rational plan for subdividing a continent.

Bourbon Spain and revolutionary Mexico surrounded by Jeffersonian America . . . that's part of the basic unease of Los Angeles, the first of many instabilities inscribed permanently on the landscape and in the imagination. From one perspective at least, Los Angeles will always have a crooked heart. Maps have that shaping power.

All but the most utilitarian of Los Angeles maps through most of the 20th century had a divided purpose. They charted some aspects of the actual city, but they also fantasized a city of desire. Most often the desire was named "romance," precisely as if the map, like a novel by Nora Roberts or Danielle Steel, could sweep your into a state of reverie in which your heart's longing is fulfilled.

Fortunately, the perfect map of Los Angeles - the Borgesian map of all romantic maps - is already in your possession, just outside your door. Its scale is 1:1, and you will need good shoes.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Trader Chris. It is used under a Creative Commons License.