Title

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
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.

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.
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.

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.
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.

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.