Observing Los Angeles

Appreciating LA's ghost streets and shapes


Writer Geoff Manaugh has posted at BLDGBLOG his observation that from above, the shapes of blocks, yards and even specific homes reveal the existence of ghost streets. Streets (or more often, streetcar lines) that are no longer there but which left a mark on the cityscape. I love finding those too in today's city and thinking about what they originally were. I would add, in addition to old streets and Red Car lines, the shapers of our urban geography include old property edges and rancho boundaries, even city and town limits that no longer are recognized.

The most well recognized on a large scale are probably are the places across Los Angeles where the street grids shift orientation, as around the diamond of the original Spanish pueblo boundary — see Hoover Street. Or in the northeast quarter of the Valley, where the streets orient to the railroad tracks along San Fernando Road that were the reason the first subdividing happened at all out there, in the later 1800s. In the Valley, my favorite revealing remnants are the slight curves in the alignment of streets like Sepulveda and Balboa boulevards and Woodley Avenue as they approach Roscoe Boulevard. Roscoe was carved into the soil over the hemisphere line that divided the former range of Mission San Fernando into the Lankershim Ranch to the south and the Porter ranches to the north — carved into the dirt by a plough furrow 15 miles or so long, so the story goes.

Over time the perpendicular roads on the Lankershim side were laid out a little bit offset from the roads north of the Roscoe line. After the old ranch limits were erased and Roscoe became a city street, suburban traffic jams caused by forcing north-south traffic to stop and jog around a corner at Roscoe led to the gradual stitching together of the bigger boulevards that cross Roscoe. Just as Roscoe itself was eventually curved into a single thoroughfare over the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, instead of making drivers stop and turn two corners.

Manaugh focuses on the shapes found on blocks in the Hollywood area. Sample:

For reasons mostly related to a bank heist described in my book, "A Burglar's Guide to the City," I found myself looking at a lot of aerial shots of Los Angeles—specifically the area between West Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard—when I noticed this weird diagonal line cutting through the neighborhood.

It is not a street—although it obviously started off as a street. In fact, parts of it today are still called Marshfield Way.

At times, however, it's just an alleyway behind other buildings, or even just a narrow parking lot tucked in at the edge of someone else's property line.

Other times, it actually takes on solidity and mass in the form of oddly skewed, diagonal slashes of houses.

The buildings that fill it look more like scar tissue, bubbling up to cover a void left behind by something else's absence.

First of all, I love the idea that the buildings seen here take their form from a lost street—that an old throughway since scrubbed from the surface of Los Angeles has reappeared in the form of contemporary architectural space.

That is, someone's living room is actually shaped the way it is not because of something peculiar to architectural history, but because of a ghost street, or the wall of perhaps your very own bedroom takes its angle from a right of way that, for whatever reason, long ago disappeared.

Go over and read more — he includes Google Maps of the blocks he mentions.

Downtown, of course, is the part of town most brutally reconstructed and where old streets, alleys and rail lines (and entire disappeared neighborhoods, such as Bunker Hill, Sonoratown and old Chinatown) hide under today's city. I enjoyed a little buzz of delight recently seeing for the first time the photo display in the lobby of the Broadway Arcade Building that shows the short street that used to connect Broadway and Spring Street where the arcade now stands.

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