As a boy, I paged through the old Renie Atlas of Los Angeles streets and later the Thomas Guide. The fact that there was a map linking my Lakewood neighborhood to the vast grid of Los Angeles made my suburban location more real to me. I naively assumed that the maps didn't lie. I expected to see avenues pointing due north and south and major streets going east and west. That's how nearly all cities were laid out in the West, unless an accident of coastline or unsuitable ground prevented it. But not Los Angeles, whose heart was made crooked.
Downtown Los Angeles is cocked about 36 degrees from the north-south grid that was Thomas Jefferson's dream for filling in the empty places on the blank page of the continent. Jefferson imagined his rational geometry penetrating forests, fording rivers and passing across prairies, leaving behind a national design of townships and sections that extended uniformly from the Alleghenies to the Pacific Ocean. The West's conquest (and its conversion into marketable real estate) began in 1785 when Congress adopted Jefferson's scheme to lay over the disorderly wilderness his rigidly right angle grid, where north is always at the top, south always at the bottom.
The streets of downtown Los Angeles have a different dream. They do not lead to the cardinal points of the compass but to the uncertain spaces in between. Ambiguity is written on our landscape.
You wouldn't know it just by driving downtown's streets. We impose Jefferson's imagination on what we see. But stand in front of the Biltmore Hotel on Pershing Square and look down at the brass compass rose set in the sidewalk. It shows that the streets downtown point to other destinations, that these streets still resist the city's American occupation in 1847.
Within the triumphant American grid is another, four Spanish leagues square, that conforms as best it can to the 16th century Laws of the Indies. These royal ordinances required that the streets and house lots in the cities of New Spain have a 45-degree disorientation from true north and south to provide, it was said, equal light to every side of a small house throughout the day. Given the way Spanish and then Mexican Los Angeles extended along the bank of its uncertain river, only 36 degrees of compliance was possible.
The 1849 Ord and Hutton survey, which produced the first map of the newly American city, left the puzzle of royal versus republican orientation unresolved. The map pictures a longitudinal city and used facts on the ground — the bed of the Los Angeles River — as an organizing principle. Faint, spidery lines intersecting at the town plaza hint at compass points the map otherwise ignores.
As the city began to sell itself into the future in the 1870s, Ord's map was blended with newer real estate surveys. They too show the city within the grid of its founding. House lots and streets continue to replicate its off-kilter orientation, as they will until the boom times that followed the arrival of the transcontinental railroads at the end of the 19th century.
The break from colonial to American city begins there. New streets and avenues far from the plaza point to where they are supposed to. The original grid looks like an aberration when it's shown in the context of the city's vast expansion. The real city is the one that has been routinely gridded over the plains and foothills of the Los Angeles basin, not the cockeyed one on Ord's map.
Our false ideas of Los Angeles are so compelling that the way the streets downtown are shown is often "corrected" to align with the national grid. On contemporary maps of downtown, the skew is straightened out and Figueroa Street appears to point due north or sometimes even east. This sort of cartographic lie only makes it harder to know where you are. Especially as you reorient yourself to the Jeffersonian scheme beyond the boundaries of the colonial city, crossing from one imperial imagination to another.
On maps of Los Angeles, civilizations collided. We're forgetful of their clash, but the streets themselves remember.
D.J. Waldie is a contributing editor for Opinion. He wrote the forward to the just-published book, "Los Angeles in Maps," by Glen Creason with additional essays by Dydia DeLyser, Joe Linton, William J. Warren and Morgan P. Yates, and photography by Julie Shafer. "Los Angeles in Maps" is the source of the illustrations for this essay.