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The Lost Plan to Honor L.A.'s Mexican and American Past Within its Street Grid

At Jefferson and Figueroa, American and California history intersect.

The two streets bear the names of historic figures -- Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, and Jose Figueroa, a governor of the Mexican province of Alta California -- who lived on opposite sides of the continent and never met or exchanged correspondence.

But this collision of historical worlds -- an English-speaking Atlantic republic and a Spanish-speaking Pacific province -- is no coincidence. It's a remnant of an early scheme to honor Los Angeles' dual, competing identities within its street grid, conceived in the 1850s when the wounds of the Mexican-American War still throbbed and Spanish-speaking Californios still outnumbered the English-speaking newcomers.

Survey maps from that period project a sprawling grid of streets onto the countryside surrounding what was then a small village. North-south streets bore the names of California's Mexican-era governors -- Manuel Micheltorena, Juan Bautista Alvarado, José Figueroa, José María de Echeandía -- alongside a couple additional Spanish names, San Pedro and Soto. East-west streets bore the names of the United States' first seven presidents, from George Washington to Andrew Jackson.

Details are sketchy, but the naming plan was likely the work of two surveyors, Henry Hancock and George Hansen. The city council had hired them in 1853 to parcel Los Angeles' four-square leagues of public land into 35-acre "donation lots," so named because the city gave them away and reaped the revenue from the resulting property taxes. Hancock's and Hansen's original map is lost to history, but the naming plan appeared on a map that Hansen compiled four years later (preserved at the City Archives), and again on an 1867 real-estate map.

We don't know the surveyors' rationale for the naming plan, or whether they actually intended any symbolism, but the 1850s were marked by what historian and "Whitewashed Adobe" author William Deverell terms "the unending Mexican War" -- frontier violence between Anglo Americans and Mexican Americans, gunsmoke, banditry, and lynchings. Was the naming scheme a symbolic (and perhaps feeble) gesture toward civic unity? Or did it instead reflect the surveyors' ambivalence toward the rapid conversion of once-public land, held under Spanish and then Mexican law in common trust for pasturage and recreation, into private real estate under American law?

In any case, only a fraction of these proposed streets ever became real.

Soon after the "donation lots" survey, Los Angeles confirmed the boundaries of its municipal lands and found that much of its planned street grid lay beyond its borders. In the ensuing decades, other surveyors drew new lines over the streets sketched by Hancock and Hansen, erasing the names of Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Jackson from official maps.

Of the many possible intersections between gubernatorial and presidential roads -- Micheltorena and Monroe, Alvarado and Madison, Echandia and Jackson -- only three ever came into being, where Figueroa meets Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.

In some ways, Los Angeles has come full circle since the 1850s. Its population, once largely divided between Mexican natives and Anglo occupiers, has become prismatically multicultural, with an ascendant Latino majority that might relate to the street-level intersection of L.A.'s Hispanic and Anglo pasts in new ways.

This 1857 survey map sketches out a plan to name Los Angeles streets after U.S. presidents and governors of Mexican California. Scanned from a reproduction in the USC Libraries' Special Collections. Original at the Los Angeles City Archives.
This 1857 survey map sketches out a plan to name Los Angeles streets after U.S. presidents and governors of Mexican California. Scanned from a reproduction in the USC Libraries' Special Collections.Original at the Los Angeles City Archives.

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City Map No. 58, the 1857 document revealing the original plan for Los Angeles street names, is preserved within the Los Angeles City Archives. Photo courtesy of Michael Holland.
City Map No. 58, the 1857 document revealing the original plan for Los Angeles street names, is preserved within the Los Angeles City Archives. Photo courtesy of Michael Holland.
A detail of the above map, scanned from a reproduction from the USC Libraries' Special Collections.
A detail of the above map, scanned from a reproduction from the USC Libraries' Special Collections, showing the original plan to name streets after U.S. presidents from  Washington to Jackson. Only Washington, Adams, and Jefferson ever became actual streets.

Further Reading and Research

Creason, Glen. Los Angeles in Maps. New York: Rizzoli, 2010.

Deverell, William Francis. Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Harlow, Neal. Maps and Surveys of the Pueblo Lands of Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1976.

Masters, Nathan. "Gridding the City." In LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, 10-21. Berkeley: Heyday, 2015.

 

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