The Long and Winding Roads of Southern California

Ever wonder why so many of Southern California's streets curve and bend for no apparent reason? KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde continues her summer series of Street Stories with a look at how our roads got so twisted around.

Song medley: Southern California street names]

Kitty Felde: The naming of Southern California streets really took off in 1913. That was the year water began to flow south from the Owens Valley, 223 miles down to Los Angeles.

That gave the city seven times the amount of water it needed for the population at the time. City leaders – and real estate developers – knew growth in the region would explode. Unfortunately, the roads couldn't keep up.

Matt Roth: Part of the problem was that any widening of a street or any opening of a new street involved the acquisition of real estate from the abutting property owners, and that was always controversial.

Felde: Matt Roth is Historian for the Automobile Club of Southern California. He says L.A. city fathers had ceded all the land to property owners back in the 1850s, neglecting to hold any back for future roads. Forty years later, the city had to pass a bond measure to start buying back tracts of land.

Even so, by the time the automobile arrived, L.A.'s traffic situation was getting out of hand. So the city hired Henry Z Osborn, Jr., a man trained as an engineer at Stanford and as a lawyer at USC.

He needed both skills to reorganize L.A.'s city streets division. By 1915, Osborn had created a plan for a grid of boulevards that would connect the city.

Roth: And it was truly a comprehensive regional vision. It took in the growing industrial areas along Slauson and what would become Alameda. It took in recreation because it had access to the beach and Griffith Park.

Felde: The grid connected neighborhoods with shopping districts and downtown. But even Osborn couldn't overcome the power of developers and homeowners.

Roth: If you go to La Brea today and you get south of 8th street and it takes a big bend. And that's where they encountered obdurate property owner resistance.

Felde: Just like the master plan for freeways a few decades later, Henry Osborn's grid of L.A. boulevards was only partially completed.

Roth: You have to consider if there's a comprehensive plan for dealing with traffic and you only build some of it, what's the effect of the plan?

Felde: The effect, says Matt Roth of the Auto Club, is what we see today every morning and afternoon: traffic congestion and gridlock on L.A. streets.

But as you sit in traffic, did you ever wonder how those streets got their names? La Brea is pretty obvious. Spanish for "the tar," it practically leads to the legendary tar pits. But what about Jamboree Road in Irvine? Or the street you're stuck in traffic on? Starting this weekend, we explore Street Stories.

[Song medley: Southern California street names]

Note: For a preview of this weekend's tales of the roads, visit our Street Stories blog.