Map 18 Curator's Notes

Los Angeles is the quintessential modern freeway city. More than any other American city, its development in the Twentieth Century was affected by its vast, complex, and often confusing system of limited access express highways, locally known as freeways. Our two core maps, published by Rand McNally in 1979 as the Los Angeles Recreation and Freeway Map, were intended primarily to help visitors to the Greater Los Angeles navigate through the freeway system on their way to city's renowned cultural and tourist attractions.

Map "B" is a conventional road map of the major streets and freeways in Metropolitan Los Angeles. On this map freeways appear as green lines, while other major highways and streets are drawn as gold, red, or blue lines. For the convenience of the visitor, the map also briefly describes and locates 49 of the metropolitan area's most famous tourist attractions. Taken together, the attractions form a cross-section of Los Angeles's history and culture. The red dots on Map "B" indicate the location of these sites. We have gathered their descriptions from the margin of the map into a single document, "List of Los Angeles Attractions," which you may access from the Resources page of this module.

Map "A" depicts the Los Angeles region from the point of view of the automobile traveler. Bold red capital letters indicate the location of major cities and towns, but almost all other geographical details other than the routes of the freeways have been eliminated from the map. Even the minor twists and turns of the freeways themselves have been straightened. Instead, the names of hundreds of freeway exits, or "offramps," are clearly indicated in the correct sequence, so that drivers might anticipate when they are approaching the offramp they wish to take. Hence, drivers heading eastbound on the Riverside Freeway wishing to exit the highway at "Hammer" know that they must prepare to leave the freeway when they reach "6th." Subway maps in other major cities work on much the same principle. The most unique feature of the map is the color coding of the freeways. The legend in the upper right corner explains the codes. Note that each freeway may be identified either by a route number or a given name, which is usually taken from the freeway's final destination or point of origin. Although freeways in other major cities also have names and numbers, the potential for confusion-particularly to strangers to the area-is especially great in Los Angeles, because there are so many freeways there.

According to the U.S. Census, metropolitan Los Angeles (officially, the Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County Combined Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes the city and county of Los Angeles, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Riverside County, and Ventura County) had a population of 16,373,645 in 2000. This is more than the 2000 population of every state except New York, Texas, and California. Although the city of Los Angeles (colored white on Map "B") is, by far, the most populous place in the region, with 3,695,000 people in 2000, the metropolitan area is actually a collection of communities, large and small, scattered over thousands of square miles. Most residents of the region live in the suburbs that spread in two long arms east and southeast of the city. On the map these communities appear as a crazy-quilt of orange, green, pink, and purple. Many of these "suburbs" are major cities in their own right. Santa Ana is the largest city in Orange County, but its neighbor Anaheim, is perhaps better known, since it is home to Disneyland and the Anaheim Angels baseball team. To the northeast of central Los Angeles, is Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl and the annual Tournament of Roses parade. The port city of Long Beach lies to the south, while far to the east are San Bernardino and Riverside, seats of counties that extend well into the desert that lies to the north and east of the metropolitan area.

Though Map "B" does not show topographic relief, it is possible nevertheless to form from it a general impression of the topography of the metropolitan area. The region is characterized by populated flat lowlands, or basins, hemmed in by rugged mountains. The yellow parts of the map are mostly unincorporated areas (that is, places that do not have legal status as independent cities or towns). Some of these yellow areas, such as those closest to downtown Los Angeles, are heavily populated. As we move farther from the city, however, the swathes of yellow designate relatively less populated areas. Note that these parts of the map have relatively few community names or highways. Though the map does not explicitly tell us so, it is possible to deduce from the place names and the winding character of the roads in these areas, that the terrain is rugged and mountainous. Note, for example, that the band of yellow that separates the cities of Orange County from the populous areas of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties has many canyons and peaks over 3000 feet and is home to Cleveland National Forest. This yellow band is the location of the Puente Hills, Chino Hills, and Santa Ana Mountains. A careful reading of the map reveals another large, mountainous barrier to urban growth directly to the north of Los Angeles and extending eastward all the way to San Bernardino. This barrier, with peaks as high as 10,000 feet, includes the San Gabriel Mountains to the northwest and the San Bernardino Mountains to the northeast. Beyond them, to the north and off the map, is the vast Mojave Desert. Yet another mountain barrier, the Santa Monica Mountains, stretches west from central Los Angeles, and has limited the growth of the metropolitan area to the west. Curvy Mulholland Boulevard, which runs west-to-east north of the letters "Los Angeles," runs along the crest of these mountains.

The juxtaposition of relatively flat valleys and basins and steeply rising mountains in the Los Angeles region has played an important role in shaping the character of the city. The basin enjoys a warm climate year-round, with only a short, rainy winter. In the eighteenth century, Spanish colonizers found that the central basin and nearby valleys were fertile and that the surrounding wall of mountains trapped enough water dropped by the occasional storms that came in from the ocean to support the kinds of agricultural products to which they were accustomed in Spain: olives, grapes, grain, and grazing livestock such as sheep and cattle. But the surrounding mountains and deserts were also formidable barriers that kept Spanish settlements in the basin relatively isolated from the rest of Spain's American empire. During the Spanish period, agricultural production was controlled by the handful of missions and pueblos in the region, notably San Gabriel and San Fernando, or by large private landholdings, or ranchos. The original pueblo of Los Angeles-what is now downtown Los Angeles, appearing on the map as a dense knot of freeways south of Glendale-was founded in 1781. The region's relative isolation continued after California became part of an independent Mexico in 1821. Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848 and the territory became a state in 1850, but while Gold Rush fever gripped northern California, American settlement of this part of California was comparatively slow. This changed when the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Los Angles in 1876 and the Atchsion, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1885. Word of the agricultural potential of the Los Angeles Basin spurred a land boom, and between 1880 and 1890, the city's population grew from 11,000 to 50,000. The rival railroads established a series of cities along their lines which served as distribution and processing centers for nearby farms. A system of local railroads, called interurbans, and trolleys began to grow in the 1890s, connecting the scattered cities and towns of the region to each other, to Los Angeles, and to its harbors. In the early twentieth century the dispersed character of settlement in the region, in which urban areas alternated with farming districts, favored the city's unusually rapid adoption of the automobile.

As early as 1915 there was one car in Los Angeles for every eight residents, while the national average was one car for every 43 residents; more densely populated Chicago had only one car for every 63 residents. By 1940 there was a car for every 1.4 Los Angeles residents, while the national average remained at one for every 4.8 residents. Metropolitan Los Angeles grew rapidly after World War I, and the city widened its streets to accommodate the proliferation of automobiles. The economy diversified; Los Angeles became an important industrial area and the motion picture industry moved into "Hollywood." The region's famous citrus groves and farms gradually disappeared as they were swallowed up by suburban growth. It became increasingly difficult for people to reach jobs that might be 20 or 30 miles away. Freeways seemed the answer. One of the first limited access highways in the nation, the Pasadena Freeway, was opened in 1940. The freeway system grew rapidly after World War II, encouraged by the creation of the national interstate express superhighway system in 1956. Today, the freeways in Los Angeles County alone stretch for 615 miles. The distances involved are huge. The distance from the western edge of Los Angeles to the eastern edge of San Bernardino is roughly 75 miles. Even by automobile, it can take hours to travel from one end of the metropolitan area to another, and necessary as the freeways are to get around Los Angeles, there is much criticism today of the traffic congestion and pollution they bring.

© 2002, 2003   The Newberry Library
top of page