There are nearly 30,000 city blocks in Los Angeles, and over the last several weeks, my colleague Maloy Moore and I have examined them all.
We've considered each one's size and population density, its racial and ethnic makeup, its proximity to landmarks, its topography and history.
Then we listened to what readers told us about the deeply rooted perceptions that make them see a block as belonging in one community instead of another.
All this was in service of a project that The Times began months ago to map the city of Los Angeles and make it possible for us to give people neighborhood-by-neighborhood news and information.
In February, we posted a first draft of the map on latimes.com, inviting users to send us comments. We received more than 1,500. Today, we're posting an updated map, revised in nearly 100 ways.
When we unveiled our first map, we were prepared for criticism, and it came. But we were astonished by the variety and eloquence of the responses. Our correspondents poured out feelings about where they lived, recalled historical tidbits that may otherwise have been forever lost and presented us the challenge of compelling, often contradictory and always passionate arguments.
From the idyllic ("Nice people, close to the mountains, lots of stars at night") to the noir ("My neighborhood is a filth strewn pit of garbage no matter what its name . . .") their comments showed that Angelenos care intensely about their own corners of the city and wield a rich and often sardonic language of place identity: "It sucks when a friend moves south of Wilshire and you can no longer joke about that area, for fear of hurting their feelings. I am a snob."
The comments reinforced what we knew from years of living in and reporting about Los Angeles: Complicated issues of race, class and social status -- not to mention the always popular matter of real estate prices -- often are bound up with the names that people use for their communities.
In some cases, the first public draft of our map contained obvious mistakes. Many were brought to our attention by livid readers. "Who knew that Eagle Rock High School is in Highland Park . . . ? Yeah, right!" wrote one.
I certainly knew better. Back in the 1960s, I ran track for Franklin High School in Highland Park and knew that the ridgeline separated our territory from rival Eagle Rock's. The fix: We moved 32 blocks on the map from a Highland Park census tract to Eagle Rock.
In many cases, readers strongly disagreed with each other. Some thought a boundary was too far to the east, others said it was too far west. Some of those disputes could be resolved with census data.
So, when readers debated whether Koreatown should end at Western Avenue or Wilton Place, our block-by-block map of the percentage of Asian residents convinced us that Wilton was where to draw the line.
But not even block-by-block data could make the map meet everyone's criteria.
My late father, Jack Smith, had an occasional correspondent named Julian P. Donohue, a lepidopterist. I knew enough to pay attention when Donohue questioned the line we drew between Mount Washington and Highland Park.
"The northeast boundary of Mount Washington is not Avenue 50, but the base of the hill more or less at the 600-foot contour," he wrote.
Alas, although we agreed, we couldn't oblige: The blocks fronting Avenue 50 extend halfway up the hill to Moon Drive and Crane Avenue, and for purposes of analyzing data, a census block is indivisible.
Our toughest decisions came from the powerful and often irreconcilable associations people make with names and places. Among the bitter rifts we encountered were the competing claims to the name West Adams. One of the less fraught comments on the subject went like this: "Over here by Adams and Fairfax we like to think of ourselves as West 'West Adams.' how about West (squared) Adams? OK then, the 'real' West Adams? Never mind, just trying to lighten the conversation."
Historical purists would reserve the designation West Adams for the once-upper-crust district of Victorian mansions now falling in the shadow of USC. But residents farther west have appropriated the name for that hard-to-define area between the 10 Freeway and Baldwin Hills. To bolster their case, the area's Neighborhood Empowerment Zone bears that name.
The discussion has taken on powerful emotional content in recent years as part of a larger debate over gentrification and changing demographics in that part of the city. We resolved the argument as best we could, using the West Adams label for the region west of Crenshaw Boulevard and including the old mansions east of Vermont Avenue as part of University Park.
The city government, itself, is seldom eager to dive into such debates. The blue signs that the city posts somewhat indiscriminately on thoroughfares give neighborhood labels, but not boundaries.
The Thomas Guide puts names in the midst of communities but does not try to make clear where neighborhood boundaries are.
The city's neighborhood councils sometimes reflect narrow political considerations and have a propensity for names such as People Involved in Community Organizing that don't do much to define a community. Many areas of the city are left out entirely while prized turf, such as Occidental College, is occasionally claimed by more than one council. The same problems apply with even greater force to homeowner associations.
ZIP Codes provide many people with a community identity, but are designed only to speed the mail. That's a nice fit in some places but unworkable in others, such as the part of Los Angeles that falls in Beverly Hills 90210. There are four ZIP Codes each for Van Nuys and North Hollywood, making both too expansive.
Unlike most other attempts at Mapping L.A., this one follows a set of principles intended to make it visually and statistically coherent: It gathers every block of the city into reasonably compact areas leaving no enclaves, gaps, overlaps or ambiguities. Except when there was a compelling reason not to, we kept landmarks such as schools in the communities bearing their names.
We'll be the first to acknowledge that our map isn't perfect. No lines can capture the geographic diversity and demographic energy of Los Angeles.
We're not planning to revise our map again until the 2010 census. But our comment line is still open. If you have a better idea, let us know.