Los Angeles Place Names

The Dining Room of the Rancho Dominguez Adobe

History in Southern California has a decidedly Spanish flavor. By the time that American settlers began to trickle into the Mexican Province of Alta California, most of the agricultural land had been surveyed and distributed among over a hundred grantees. Their names today—not coincidentally—are place names across the land. In Los Angeles County, there are grants named San Pedro, Los Nietos, San Rafael, Los Feliz, Las Virgenes, Topanga Malibu Sequit, Palos Verdes, San Antonio, Rincon de los Bueyes, Las Cienegas, La Brea, Rosa Castilla, San Pascual, Santa Gertrudes, Paso de Bartolo, San José, Sausal Redondo, La Ballona, San Vicente y Santa Monica, Boca de Santa Monica, Tujunga, Los Nogales, Azusa de Duarte, La Puente, La Cañada, San Jose de Buenos Ayres, Cahuenga, Aguaje de Centinela, and others.

Now take a detailed map of Los Angeles, and you will see these same names replicated as names of streets, communities, hills, and waterways. The road that winds around the UCLA campus is called Buenos Ayres. There are Verduga Hills in the valley, around which snake an endless number of streets with Verdugo in their names. If I were to take a bus downtown, I would go on or past streets names Santa Monica, Centinela, La Cienega, San Vicente, and La Brea—all within ten miles.

A Map of Spanish Land Grants in Los Angeles County

Scattered throughout the county are the various adobes, or what remains of the grantees’ ranchos and haciendas. I have visited the Centinela and Dominguez adobes, and there are others I’d like to see. They are usually staffed by enthusiastic volunteers and stocked with furniture of the period. The oldest house in the City of Los Angeles is the Avila Adobe, which belonged to an early alcalde and is part of the Olvera Street tourist complex.

By the way, let’s call the city by its founding name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula. That translates to the town of our Lady Queen of the Angeles of Porciúncula. (Curiously, one place name that’s widely missing in L.A. is Porciûncula—too long, I guess.)


Los Angeles de Meso-America

Mayan Dancers at El Pueblo de Los Angeles

I was looking at some old pictures I had taken near Olvera Street several years ago. There was a Meso-American dance troupe dancing by what passes in L.A. for the city’s zocalo. This was the center of Los Angeles when it was founded in 1781.  There are several 19th century museums, including the Chinese-American Museum and the old firehouse; there is an old Catholic church, Our Lady Queen of Angels; and, of course, there is Olvera Street with its restaurants and Mexican handicrafts.

What I like about the Pueblo is its seeming lack of self-consciousness. There are some scheduled events, such as the annual blessing of the animals by the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles that takes place in April. But there is also a lot of spontaneity.

Walk across Alameda Street from the Pueblo, and you find yourself at Union Station, L.A. art deco railroad station, which has since been turned into a rail and bus transit hub. That’s where I first arrived in Los Angeles on the El Capitan in December 1966.

A block or two north, and you’re in Chinatown. Not far south is Little Tokyo, and a mile or two east begins the East Los Angeles barrio.

I find myself in love with the city’s endless variety.