When the Streets Had No Names

In Southern California, there are majestic avenues like Imperial Highway or Victory Boulevard. There are also romantic roads like Sunset or Laurel Canyon. But those streets didn't always exist, and for every street, there's a history. This summer, KPCC's Kitty Felde has found some of the stories you can find right under your tires.

[Song medley: Southern California street names]

Kitty Felde: Before you can name a street, you first need... a street. Back about a century and a half, L.A. had plenty of dusty paths, but no streets. Matthew Roth, Historian for the Automobile Club of Southern California, says that began to change in the 1870s. The railroad arrived in downtown Los Angeles, and with it came the need for a new kind of pavement, one made of heavy stone blocks.

Matthew Roth: Typically block pavements were installed around rail depots and wharf areas where there were heavily loaded vehicles – wagons and so forth. And a lot of traffic that would just tear up a pure road pavement.

Felde: In the 19th century, a new paving technology swept through Europe and the Eastern U.S., invented by a Scotsman named John MacAdam.

Roth: It was a very specific formula of crushed gravel, graded to certain sizes, laid down carefully in an excavated roadbed, with graduated sizes so that the largest gravel was at the bottom, graduating up to smaller sizes up at the top. And this process became known as MacAdam.

Felde: Macadam gravel was state of the art for a society that got around on horses with iron shoes, and wagons with wooden wheels and steel rims that traveled about seven miles an hour.

Roth: This fresh crushed gravel with sharp edges on it, the edges would be knocked off by the pressure from the steel tires and animal shoes and it would form dust and it would pack the interstices of the stones. And when it rained, it would cement the small pieces of dust. And it would create this very hard surface that water would run off of. It was designed to harden in use.

Felde: MacAdam was all well and good until the invention of the horseless carriage.

Roth: Now when you have an automobile with rubber tires going 20, 30, 35 miles an hour and creating suction on these gravel pavements, what happened is that the suction pulled the pieces of dust out of those interstices, weakened the pavement, created ruts, then rain came and water penetrated deeply and it became a real mess.

Felde: Matt Roth says Boston and Philadelphia had more cars than L.A. and were already using a newer road composition. It was known as Trinidad asphalt, so called because the sticky, gooey substance rolled on top of a road came from the Caribbean. Soon the use of asphalt spread west.

Roth: 'Course in Southern California, there was no need to import it because of the tar seeps in places like the La Bea Tar Pits and Brea and other places. So we had a close at hand domestic source.

Felde: And finally, real streets that could stand up to the pounding of traffic. And once Southern California had streets, the streets had to have names. Matt Roth says a frenzy of street names hit the pavement in 1913 when Henry Z Osborn, Jr. became the street czar in the city of Los Angeles. We'll talk about that tomorrow.