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How Los Angeles Got a "Downtown"

It's easy enough to locate downtown Los Angeles. On a map, the name hovers over a compact urban street grid. In a car, it's where most of the city's freeways lead. From a plane, it's visible as a dense cluster of modern skyscrapers and older commercial buildings.

But even if locating it is a simple matter, downtown L.A. resists easy definition and delineation. Does it include Chinatown? The Arts District? Does downtown sprawl across the 110 freeway, or do those high-rises occupy a distinct district known as City West?

A circa 1935 postcard of downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.
A circa 1935 postcard of downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Perhaps we can trace the uncertainty surrounding downtown to the term's origins as a New York import.

When it originated there in the early 1800s, downtown referred to the lower or southern end of Manhattan. (Uptown was northern or upper Manhattan.) As Robert Fogelson recounts in his 2001 history "Downtown: Its Rise and Fall," the term's meaning eventually came unmoored from simple polar orientation. By the 1850s downtown referred not just to lower Manhattan as a specific geographic place but also to the city's business community more generally. Soon cities across the United States were adopting the term for their own central business districts.

And when it arrived in Los Angeles, which lacked Manhattan's strong north-south polar axis, Angelenos weren't quite sure how to map the new term onto the city's existing geography.

At first, they used downtown almost exclusively as an adjective or an adverb referring to the city's commercial center, not as a noun. There was no downtown Los Angeles per se, but by the late 1870s there were "downtown hotels" and "downtown railroad offices", and Angelenos could "walk downtown" in the direction of such businesses.

The precise geographic location of downtown, however, was anything but fixed.

In 1887, "downtown businesses" occupied the city's three biggest commercial buildings – the Temple, Baker, and Downey blocks – as well as nearby storefronts along North Main Street. Within a decade, "downtown businesses" had migrated several blocks to the south and west. The Southern Pacific's downtown office, for example, had moved from the Baker Block on Main just north of Temple to 144 S. Spring by 1895. The Union Pacific had relocated from 236 N. Main to 229 S. Spring, and several smaller railroads occupied the brand-new Bradbury Block at 2nd and Broadway.

For a time, Angelenos also adopted downtown's counterpart, uptown, to refer to businesses located near but not in the downtown core. The Bisbee-Fishburn door and window company, for instance, opened an "uptown office" at Ninth and Main to supplement business at its main office at Washington and Alameda.

Meanwhile, locations we'd almost certainly identify as downtown today were excluded from its scope. In 1902, the Los Angeles Herald apologized for misidentifying a hotel as "downtown." It was the Bellevue Terrace Hotel at Figueroa and Sixth.

Eventually, as the city sprawled far into the surrounding countryside, it became useful to distinguish between a downtown – a noun referring to a fixed place – and the city's outlying areas. Hence downtown Los Angeles was born. The term made its first appearance in the Herald in 1906 and in the Times three years later.

But even as downtown Los Angeles gained common currency, it lacked legal definition.

The city council came close to drawing official boundaries in 1920, when it defined the Los Angeles "business district" as an irregular pentagon-shaped area bounded by Sunset on the north, San Pedro Avenue on the northeast, Central on the east, Pico on the south, and Georgia, Bixel, and Boylston on the west. It declined, however, to use the term downtown.

In the late 1950s, when city planners began eyeing L.A.'s downtown area for redevelopment, they adopted a new, synonymous term: "Central City." On official maps, four existing or planned freeways bounded the Central City: the Hollywood (101), Harbor (110), and Santa Monica (10), as well as the unbuilt Industrial Freeway that would have sliced through the city's wholesale and industrial districts.

Today, a slightly altered Central City survives on planners' maps, but the term has never supplanted downtown in everyday conversation. Its borders, meanwhile, stop short of embracing all that Los Angeles generally considers downtown – the Arts District lies beyond Central City's eastern border along Alameda. Likewise, the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's official boundaries fail to definitively answer where downtown begins and ends, as they exclude quintessential downtown locales like Little Tokyo and Union Station.

Defining and delineating downtown Los Angeles, then, remains an uncertain task. Even more uncertain – where is uptown Los Angeles today?

In 1920, the Los Angeles City Council imposed new restrictions on parking downtown. At the same time, it delineated a legal 'business district' shown as the shaded area in the above drawing from the Los Angeles Times.
In 1920, the Los Angeles City Council imposed new restrictions on parking downtown.  At the same time, it delineated a legal 'business district' shown as the shaded area in  the above drawing from the Los Angeles Times.

 

In the late 1950s, downtown Los Angeles became 'Central City' on planners' maps. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.
In the late 1950s, downtown Los Angeles became 'Central City' on planners' maps.  Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

 

The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's boundaries exclude the Arts District, Little Tokyo, and Union Station.
The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's boundaries exclude the Arts District,  Little Tokyo, and Union Station.