Start watching
Tending Nature show poster

Tending Nature

Start watching

Southland Sessions

Start watching

Earth Focus

Start watching

Reporter Roundup

Start watching

City Rising

Start watching

Lost LA

Start watching
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement and Special Events teams.

Thematic Cartography and Mapping Los Angeles


Mapping Los Angeles and Southern California has been one of the core concerns of KCET Departures from the moment it was launched. This week L.A. Letters highlights several books that examine the role mapping plays in place-making and regional identity, including the new book "LAtitudes" by Heyday Press that uses maps to explore the past, present, and future of Los Angeles.

Before discussing "LAtitudes," a quick discussion of mapping and cartography's relationship to history and geography provides an important framework for understanding the book's importance. The 2013 book "Mapping the Nation," published by the University of Chicago Press and written by Susan Schulten, discusses how mapmaking and cartography was used in the 19th Century to understand social organization, economics, and the ethnic, racial, moral, and physical qualities of America during that period. Highlighting the rise of what Schulten calls "thematic mapping," her narrative describes how new thematic maps were used to chart important data and shed greater light on the nation's condition.

"In the nineteenth century, Americans began to use maps in extraordinary ways," the book's back cover states. "Medical men mapped diseases to understand epidemics, natural scientists mapped climate to uncover weather patterns, and Northerners created slave maps to assess the power of the South." These thematic maps "demonstrated the analytical potential of cartography. This radical shift in spatial thought and representation opened the door to the idea that maps were not just illustrations of data, but visual tools that are uniquely equipped to convey complex ideas, changing forever the meaning of a map."

While historical cartographers are quick to point out that thematic maps have been around for many centuries, Schulten's work shows how thematic maps have evolved in America and their lasting influence over the last 150 years.

An excerpt from 'A Map Showing the Progress of Discovery on the West Coast', 1857, as discussed in Schulten's book
An excerpt from 'A Map Showing the Progress of Discovery on the West Coast', 1857, as discussed in Schulten's book

Denis Wood is a professor and writer who has authored several seminal works on mapmaking, including "The Power of Maps." In his book, "Rethinking the Power of Maps," he writes, "Maps are systems of propositions, where a proposition is nothing more than a statement that affirms (or denies) the existence of something. As such, maps are arguments about existence." Wood posits that maps are a visual metaphor and a mirror for understanding the world. Schulten's book showed how thematic maps were visual metaphors and tools used by the North during the Civil War to win the war.

These visual metaphors are especially visible in thematic maps. Schulten writes: "By establishing political borders, historical maps also fostered civic unity by demonstrating a common territorial heritage. The nation could even be said to rely upon historical knowledge: geography grounds the nation in space, while history roots it in time."

Simply put, thematic maps put history and geography into greater perspective and provide a visual metaphor for how things are in that respective region, whether it maps census data, agriculture or climate patterns.

Author Rebecca Solnit used 22 thematic maps to explicate San Francisco and the Bay Area in her award-winning work from 2010, "Infinite City." Solnit is a longtime San Francisco resident, and in her book's Introduction she notes, "I am constantly struck that no two people live in the same city." This is her book's central premise regarding the infinite city. Furthermore she writes, "Maps are always invitations in ways that texts and pictures are not; you can enter a map, alter it, add to it, plan with it. A map is a ticket to an actual territory, while a novel is only a ticket to emotion and imagination... This mapping of San Francisco would beget something more akin to Borge's infinite libraries and endlessly expand to contain this atlas in hundreds of thousands of volumes, or perhaps not." These ideas written by Solnit are why she titled the book "Infinite City," and why the book's Introduction is subtitled, "On the Inexhaustibility of the City."

Each of the thematic maps in Solnit's book is accompanied by a short essay that further explains the idea being mapped. Some of the maps include, "The Names before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area," "Green Women: Open Spaces and Their Champions," and "Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area since World War II." The veracity of these maps instantly made "Infinite City," a landmark work. It is this template of thematic maps created by Solnit that served as the inspiration for editor Patricia Wakida to create "LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas."

'Tribes of San Francisco' map from 'Infinite City'
'Tribes of San Francisco' map from 'Infinite City'

Similar to "Infinite City," "LAtitudes," charts the past, present, and future of Los Angeles. 19 thematic maps are included with an essay accompanying each. In the book's "Introduction," Glen Creason, the Los Angeles Public Library's Map Librarian, writes, "Maps helped the city grow physically, spiritually and intellectually." Creason's own book, "Los Angeles in Maps," contains dozens of Los Angeles maps from the last two centuries. "LAtitudes," which is divided into three subsections, "Orientations," "Histories," and "Perspectives," goes a long way to reveal the physical, intellectual and spiritual elements of Los Angeles.

The first map and accompanying chapter, "Naming Los Angeles," explicates the process of not only naming Los Angeles but the recent rise in the names of new districts across the city. Author Rosten Woo notes how areas like the San Fernando Valley and South Los Angeles have an ever-changing number of specific neighborhoods depending on who you ask. Woo writes, "In the Thomas Bros. guide from 1960, the San Fernando Valley contains seventeen neighborhoods. In 2013, there are between thirty-four (Los Angeles Times) and thirty-nine (Wikipedia). If you included every neighborhood that a resident of the San Fernando Valley imagines, you might end up with upwards of seventy." Woo explains how these differences are because of real estate agents, neighborhood councils, business improvement districts and other civic forces that shape the borders within the city. Woo used examples like how the recent official designation of the area "Little Bangladesh," was controversial to some because it was within the overlapping geography of Koreatown.

Woo also discusses how South Los Angeles is no longer called South Central and the reasons behind this. His essay goes a long way to describe how these specific neighborhood names are an important part of place-making and each citizen's identity. Some residents like to be associated with specific neighborhoods for status purposes, whether it be a hipster from Silver Lake or a poet from Leimert Park. The example Woo uses is a resident that tells people they are from Sherman Oaks, but they are actually from Van Nuys. This reminded me of an old friend I had that grew up just east of Western in Koreatown but would always tell people he was from Hancock Park, which was actually five blocks west of his house after Wilton Place. The map accompanying Woo's essay shows 80 neighborhoods within Los Angele city limits and many others in adjacent cities and unincorporated areas in Los Angeles County. Though Woo's biography reveals he's only been in Los Angeles since 2009, his essay shows he has a strong understanding of the underlying civic forces which govern our city.

Excerpt from the map 'Naming Los Angeles' from 'LAtitudes'
Excerpt from the map 'Naming Los Angeles' from 'LAtitudes', by klxadm

Nathan Masters' chapter, "Gridding the City," discusses how the overlapping street patterns tell a story about the city's historical development. He writes, "Successive cultural and political regimes have passed through the Los Angeles basin, and each has left an imprint on the landscape. One after another, these regimes etched lines -- footpaths, property boundaries, survey marks -- that eventually determined the placement of streets and boundaries." His essay explains how the patchwork of Los Angeles streets came to be because of street patterns like the Spanish Grid, Ord's Grid, Hansen's Grid, Jefferson's Grid, the Ranchos' Grid and the Pacific Grid. He uses the course of Wilshire Boulevard to show how these overlapping grids come together to form the lopsided street patterns of Los Angeles.

"LAtitudes," like "Infinite City," has several chapters that reveal extraordinary elements of the city. Wendy Gilmartin's chapter on "Ugly Buildings" celebrates the structures that make up "the city's messy stew of urban elements." Cindi Moar Alvitre's chapter, "Coyote Tours," contains a map that shows the names of the long-gone native Tongva tribal communities. As she writes, "Familiar place names like Tujunga and Cahuenga alert us to a deep, continuous history and connection with the land -- a land once laced by a multitude of free-running surface streams, springs, and coastal wetlands before the flow of water was tamed and encased in concrete." Teddy Varno's chapter "The Bovid Metropolis" has a map that shows the 19th Century Spanish Ranchos and discusses the time when Southern California was an uncut landscape roamed by vast herds of longhorn cattle.

Laura Pulido's chapter, "Landscapes of Racial Violence," reveals how Southern California's geography contains "landscapes layered with generations of power struggles and painful memories." Her essay notes that "Los Angeles's soil is soaked with blood." Pulido calls the San Gabriel Mission "ground zero for racial violence in Los Angeles." Her essay connects the dots between the city's dark history and the present. For example, the current site of Grand Park is where the city's first jail was established in 1853. Pulido writes about a lynching that took place on the site in 1858. She shows how the past, present and future of Los Angeles has been shaped by racial violence. "The eugenics movement; the Japanese American internment; repatriation; the Zoot-Suit Riots; the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, Chief Parker; Watts 1965; Rodney King; MacArthur Park 2006; the Rampart Scandal; mass deportations post 9/11 -- these are all examples of Los Angeles's history of state-sanctioned racial violence," she writes. Pulido is one of the co-authors of "A People's Guide to Los Angeles." Her chapter intends to raise our awareness of this history in order to break the cycle of violence in Los Angeles.

Luis Rodriguez's chapter, "How Xican@s Are the Makeweight of Los Angeles's Past, Present and Future," maps cultural treasures of East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno. In addition to explicating the Chicano history of Los Angeles, Rodriguez explains the intricacies that make up the Chicano population: "Terms like Hispanic or Latino, created by others to designate us, are misnomers. We may speak Spanish and have Spanish-derived names. But nobody can confuse us with the actual people in Spain." Furthermore he writes, "Today many Chicanos forgo the 'ch' and use X for the sound of the Nahuatl peoples used (all Roman lettering is alien to native people so there is no correct way of doing this). Xicanos also include @ to be inclusive of both male and female (a complement rather than a distinction)." Rodriguez writes about the diversity of the Chicano population, the regional history and his own long history in the Chicano political movement.

Excerpt from the map 'Landscapes of Racial Violence' from 'LAtitudes

Lynell George maps the history of radio in Los Angeles including personalities like Aimee Semple McPherson, Jim Ladd, Johnny Otis, Wolfman Jack, the Real Don Steele, Vin Scully, Chick Hearn, Rodney Bingenheimer, Chuck Niles, J.J. Jackson, Russ Parr and Tom Schnabel. "Long before I owned a set of keys," George writes, "my way of traveling Los Angeles was by coasting along the dial. In a TV age, in the heart of 'Filmland,' I grew up radio obsessed." She poignantly writes about how meaningful radio has been to her and to millions of other Angelenos. "These DJs and hosts created worlds. While they may have referenced places we frequented, they also urged us to cross boundaries, both physical and those of perception," she writes. Moreover she notes, "Those radio addresses tell us a bit about our paths, our sense of possibility. They are the places where we sometimes felt most like ourselves; they were the places in the city where we were never alone."

Josh Kun's chapter, "Los Angeles is Singing," maps an encyclopedic list of the countless songs composed about Los Angeles. Besides obvious selections by artists like the Doors, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Red Hot Chili Peppers, X, Ry Cooder, N.W.A., Sublime, Frank Zappa, X, Beck, Motley Crue and Missing Persons, he remembers groups like The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Los Lobos, Bad Religion, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Ozomatli. Kun even includes recent Los Angeles songs by new artists like Dumbfoundead and Kendrick Lamar. He asks, "Is it the place that creates the music, or the music that creates the place?" His essay goes neighborhood by neighborhood highlighting notable songs about each location, namechecking songs like "Trouble Everyday," Frank Zappa's song about the 1965 Watts Rebellion and "Ocean Size," by Jane's Addiction. In the dozens of Los Angeles songs named by Kun, the only two I did not see were "City of Angels," by Bill Withers and "L.A.," by Elliot Smith. Kun's essay and accompanying map show he knows more about Los Angeles music than just about anyone.

There are numerous other fascinating maps and essays in "LAtitudes," like Dan Koeppel's "Cycleway," Sylvia Sukop's "Pioneers on the Frontiers of Faith," and Jen Hofer's "Under the Radar and Off the Charts." Each of these essays and maps chart hidden histories and the rich characteristics that make Los Angeles the infinite geography that it is. As Rebecca Solnit writes on the back's back cover, "Cities are inexhaustible; they exist in countless versions, depending on who you ask and where you go and what you want; and an atlas like 'LAtitudes' invites you to open up other people's version and in so doing find your own."

Solnit is indeed correct about the inexhaustibility of cities. As a native Angeleno and devoted student of geography, I have been studying the landscape and local maps from my early childhood, and to this day I still discover new pockets of the city. In the last two decades hundreds of books have emerged in the growing field of Los Angeles Studies. Inevitably the more popular areas have always received more attention; nonetheless "LAtitudes," goes a long way to filling in the gaps. Future maps and studies will chart other less-explored regions of Southern California like the South Bay, the Inland Empire, Long Beach and Orange County. "LAtitudes," is a valuable contribution to the growing list of books in the geography of L.A. Letters.

Support Provided By
Support Provided By
Read More
Chiqui Diaz at work advocating to end social isolation | Courtesy of Chiqui Diaz

Youth Leaders Making a Difference Honored by The California Endowment

The Youth Awards was created in 2018 to recognize the impact youth voices have in creating change throughout California. Learn more about the positive work they're accomplishing throughout the state.
A 2011 crime scene in Tulare County, where one of Jose Martinez's victims was found. | Courtesy of Marion County Sherff’s Office via FOIA/Buzzfeed

California's Unincorporated Places Can Be Poor, Powerless — and the Perfect Place to Commit Murder

It's time to do better by communities that don’t even have local police to call, let alone defund.
Protesters confront police outside the 3rd Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after the George Floyd killing | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In California, A History of Young, Powerful Voices in Journalism Emerge

In the Golden State, the youth have a long history of storytelling that uncovers little-heard narratives.