Why do some Los Angeles boulevards like Venice or Santa Monica seem to wander across the street grid? What explains the oversized median dividing Culver Boulevard? And why are there two San Vicentes?
The answer behind these curiosities lies in these roads' origin as streetcar lines. In the decades that bracketed the turn of the 20th century, several electric rail lines stretched out from downtown Los Angeles toward the sea, meandering across the coastal plain to serve the scattered settlements of the time: Colegrove, Sherman, The Palms.
As the metropolis grew around trolley tracks, interurban rail lines morphed into automobile boulevards.
When it first opened in 1897, the Santa Monica via Sawtelle Line offered passengers wide-open vistas of bean fields and citrus groves from its electric cars. As the metropolis grew around the tracks, the rail line morphed into Santa Monica Boulevard – complete with a sudden course correction in West Hollywood where the tracks once turned toward the town of Sawtelle.
Likewise, the Venice Short Line – completed in 1903 to serve Abbot Kinney's new Venice of America development – eventually became the meandering, 13-mile route of Venice Boulevard. Meanwhile, spur lines that peeled off the main routes at obtuse angles survive today as Culver and San Vicente boulevards.
A consistent pattern governed the evolution of these interurban rail routes into city streets. First, construction crews laid tracks and erected wooden poles that held aloft the overhead electric wires. A dirt path might run parallel to the rails, but only later would a real estate company construct paved automobile lanes on either side of the tracks – making the rail line the new boulevard's median. Finally, as the Red Car system slowly died (don't believe the conspiracy theories), the overhead wires came down and landscaping, bike paths, or new traffic lanes took over the median, erasing any trace of the boulevard's origins as pioneer rail lines.
Why two San Vicentes?
Both boulevards follow the path of the Pacific Electric's Westgate Line. The developers of Westgate (better known today Brentwood) first dedicated a San Vicente Blvd. in 1905, borrowing the name from the area's Mexican land grant, Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica. Early plans envisioned this boulevard extending through Hollywood all the way to downtown L.A. These grand plans were never realized, but in 1922 the developers of the Wilshire Highlands and Carthay Center subdivisions resurrected the idea of an elongated San Vicente. Building an automobile boulevard along the tracks of the Westgate Line between Wilshire and Venice boulevards, they named the new street San Vicente Blvd. – presumably in reference to the original, several miles to the northwest.