Just where is downtown Los Angeles anyway?

traffic-pattern-map.jpgTraffic and land use in the "Central City" in the late 1950s. USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection

KCET history observer Nathan Masters takes a good long look at the shifting geographic definition of downtown through time. The term itself, downtown, came here in the context of New York's linear civic geography. In LA it came to mean the central business area of the city, where the rail lines and later the bus lines, major boulevards and freeways converged. But what, exactly, are the borders of today's DTLA?

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...

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