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Survey Says: How Thomas Jefferson Made L.A.

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A surveyor, holding a leveling rod, is one of the figures in Hugo Ballin's Civil Engineering mural at Griffith Observatory. Commercial photograph by Sam Little. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

Posted Mondays, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: 1785 Land Ordinance
Year: 1785
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Rhett Beavers

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the U.S.

Thomas Jefferson was a horticulturalist extraordinaire, the builder of Monticello and the founder of the University of Virginia. He invented or was an early adapter of the dumbwaiter, the autopen and so much more.

Thomas Jefferson was also, of course, the third President of the United States, a slave owner and among the most significant figures in American history.

So? What's all this got to do with the Laws That Shaped L.A.?

Well, it turns out the Virginian fronting the two-dollar bill also wrote the 1785 Land Ordinance.

The bill, from the Continental Congress -- along with the subsequent 1787 Northwest Ordinance** -- leads in a straight line to the creation of most of the street grids of modern Los Angeles.

"The grid in L.A. is part of a national survey instituted by Jefferson and amplified over time," says Rhett Beavers, a landscape architect, designer and planner and UCLA Extension instructor. "Jefferson was looking for a way to transfer federal lands into the hands of the people."

Indeed, following the Revolutionary War, a weak federal government was seeking to reward American soldiers slash yeoman farmers and activate and occupy more of the continent.

"In order to do that," says Beavers, who teaches the History of the Designed Landscape and nominated the Land Ordinance Act as a Law That Shaped L.A., "there had to be a record of the lands to be transferred and an easy way to measure and locate land and transfer title."

Jefferson's father was a surveyor. And Jefferson is as linked with seminal American surveyors and explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are with Christopher Columbus.

So it's perhaps no great surprise to learn that the law Jefferson wrote - read part of it here - relied on... surveyors. The 1785 legislation led to the creation of the ongoing Public Land Survey System (PLSS), "a way of subdividing and describing land in the United States," according to this federal government website article.

Excerpt from 1929 map displays the angled grid pattern around downtown. Note the change in angle at Hoover towards the left of the map. Image from L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, courtesy of the USC Digital Library
Excerpt from 1929 map displays the angled grid pattern around downtown. Note the change in angle at Hoover towards the left of the map. Image from L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, courtesy of the USC Digital Library

The easiest way to survey these millions and millions of western acres, Beavers says - and the number is now up to more than a 1.5 billion acres (see the bottom of this page) - was to go out and set some sort of baseline and then measure everything in terms of right angles.

"A square or a rectangle," Beavers says, "is the simplest thing to survey," Beavers says. " It's just four points. You start at point one, you go a certain distance, you turn right, you turn right again, you turn right again, and you're back where you started."

The Ordinance ordered surveyors to measure six mile by six-mile increments; as this infographic demonstrates, these divisions could then or at future times be subsided into townships, city blocks and individual plots that are sixty-feet wide.

Beavers also explains one of the macroscopic effects of the 1785 act. "[The Ordinance] allowed, facilitated and promoted western migration," he says, "including to California in the 1800s until the late 1890s, when no more public land was available for homesteading."

Another repercussion traceable in part to 1785 (and also to 1573 -- see here) -- is the cognitive and cartographic dissonance that occurs in Los Angeles where the Jeffersonian city grid abuts a pre-existing Spanish colonial grid.

As Beavers, our KCET.org colleague D.J. Waldie, previous Laws That Shaped L.A. expert James Rojas and savvy Laws That Shaped L.A. commenters are among the many smart folks to point out, that urban planning cross-cultural, pre-and-post colonial clash is most raucously visible near Downtown L.A.

"One of the most interesting places that I find in Los Angeles is Hoover Street," Beavers says. "Because you have two different grids meeting each other. If you are going north on Hoover, you have the streets coming off at about 30-degree angles heading northeast. Whereas on the left side, all the streets hit Hoover perpendicularly."

Why is that? Blame or credit the Law of The Indies as well as Thomas Jefferson. (Read this Laws That Shaped L.A. post featuring James Rojas.)

These 16th Century Spanish urban planning regulations oriented the area surrounding L.A.'s original Spanish pueblo based on the rules mentioned here.

The 1785 Land Ordinance instructed surveyors not to re-survey Spanish land grant areas. This was due to the fact that these areas weren't public and therefore up for public de-accessioning to private owners.

(Little such courtesy was of course paid to Native American groups around the country. And it's important to recall who the recipients of these federal land grants were - and who they were not. This is, for example, a century prior to the promise of "Forty acres and a mule.")

Back now to the city grid mash-up around Hoover. Beavers compares this stretch of land to be, "two of the oldest parts of Los Angeles colliding together" as well as, "an X-ray of the landscape."

These are both consequential and rather philosophical topics. Beavers says he asks the students who take his class to not take for granted the existence of our contemporary city grid. This isn't something even his students find to be easy. "It's just so ingrained in our thinking that city equals grid, right?" Beavers says.

He continues: "If we ever stopped to ask ourselves, 'Why is this so?' then you start thinking about all sorts of other interesting things. Where does a grid come from? How does the Laws of the Indies fit into this? That was a Spanish grid overlaid on top of a Roman grid overlaid on top of a Greek grid. Who knows how we'd organize space if we didn't organize it in a grid?"

Speaking of organizing space, a recurring theme brought up by various Laws That Shaped L.A. interviewees - and of course by many others throughout the decades - has been the seemingly outsized influence private land developers have had on the growth and composition of modern Los Angeles.

Is it then possible, Beavers is asked, that the 1785 Land Ordinance is the root of all this? Of the passage of land from public to private hands? And, by surveying ceaselessly, of the subdivided sprawl that long-after folowed?

And if so, does that mean we can somehow blame polymath founding father Thomas Jefferson for the Los Angeles' sprawl and relative lack of parks and other public space?

No way, says Beavers. "Blame Jefferson for setting up high ideals," he says. "Blame us for not living up to them."

**This will be the subject of a future post.

***Note: An earlier draft of this story was originally and accidentally posted live. This updated version contains minor edits from that piece.

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

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