In a city that's about 43 percent Spanish-speaking, not to mention those who learned Spanish at school or on the fly, we still have a couple million Angelenos who haven't got a clue how colorful L.A.'s Spanish-named streets really are.
How much more fun — not to mention aware — to know these English translations, right?
Over breakfast recently, with a gleam in his eye, former Mayor Richard Riordan gave up his favorite among the city's Spanish street names: La Tijera, that excellent shortcut to LAX that slashes diagonally across a bunch of other streets.
And it means, in English? Think about it for a sec. ... Yep, it's scissors. "It cuts through everything," Riordan said with delight.
It's amazing how much these Spanish names actually matter. They connect us to our forgotten history, and to a deep sense of place. Here then are some of the most terrific Spanish-named streets in Los Angeles:
1. La Brea Avenue:
Tar Avenue. We didn't say every Spanish word was beautiful, just colorful. What else could pioneers call it, with those tar deposits bubbling through the soil, creating the La Brea Tar Pits and preserving incredible 44,000-year old skeletons of a dire wolf, saber-toothed cat and 3 million other ancient skeletons, bones and plants?
2. La Cienega Boulevard:
It's a misspelling of swamp, la cienaga, so Swamp Boulevard. As the fab book LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas explains, L.A., with its Mediterranean climate, is not a desert. Before man paved it over, massive herds of longhorn cattle were raised on L.A.'s vast grasslands. A huge freshwater wetland, stretching from Hollywood to South L.A., with L.A. River as its center, drained into the Ballona Watershed. La Cienega was built there, to freeway standards, because the deluded politicians and developers of the 1940s wanted it to be the southern stretch of "Laurel Canyon Freeway," which would have turned Laurel Canyon into a giant asphalt gash over the Hollywood Hills.
3. Ventura Boulevard:
A shortened version of buenaventura, it means Good Luck Boulevard. As one of the most mentioned roads in songs about L.A., the 18-mile street has indeed thrived. Among the most livable boulevards in L.A., neither neglected nor choked with "elegant density" towers, its low-slung ribbon of lively, welcoming communities is a haven for neighborhood activism.
4. Cahuenga Boulevard and Cahuenga Pass:
Haha! Just testing you. A real tongue twister for newbies to L.A, "Cahuenga" isn't Spanish at all. It's from the Tongva Indians, who founded a village in the San Fernando Valley near Cahuenga Pass, its location sadly lost to time. Their village, Kawengna, meant place of the mountain or place of the hill. How wonderful: Place of the Mountain Boulevard.
5. Los Feliz Boulevard:
C'mon! Feliz Navidad? You're banned from L.A. right now if you don't know this one. Feliz means happy. So it's Happy
Christmas Boulevard (a reader who spotted my initial transgression of adding "Christmas" to the street name also notes that Los Feliz is a mangled word combo, giving us a street and neighborhood name meaning the Happies, which is just so perfect). And to all our FB friends, when it rolls around, Feliz Cumpleaños!
6. Verdugo Road:
Welcome to Executioner Road, or Hangman Road, named after the first guy said to have cultivated grapes here, a gun-wielding soldier-explorer from Baja California named Jose Maria Verdugo — Joe Hangman in English.
7. Aliso Street:
In downtown, settlers of the mid-1800s camped next to the vital, meandering Los Angeles River. They were particularly drawn to a beautiful space under a majestic, shady native sycamore (again, L.A. was never, and is not, a desert). Aliso Street means Sycamore Street.
8. Alameda Street:
This one is lovely — Grove of Poplars Street — a whisper to us from the past, when buggies and horses lined its red-light district but some majestic greenery survived. L.A.'s portion of 21-mile-long Alameda is an industrial zone attracting 1-percenters ($4,500-per-month condos), sending developers into a land-bidding frenzy that's naturally driving up rents in older buildings. Artists and creatives who founded an affordable if gritty community are fleeing.
9. Ballona Wetlands:
OK, there's no Ballona Street, thank God. Why? Because last decade, Citizens United to Save All of Ballona, 100 citywide groups, fought for and saved 600 acres of coastal wetlands that city leaders wanted to tame for luxury housing, roads and crap. Extensive wetlands once edged L.A. County's coast — all but three were destroyed for development. Ballona is a misspelling of whale, or ballena in Spanish. Ballona Wetlands means Whale Wetlands.
10. Centinela Boulevard:
Sentry Boulevard. No doubt popular with Joe Hangman's crowd back in the day.
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11. Topanga Canyon Boulevard:
Gotcha again. The Tongva Indians named their settlement and their mountainous pathway from the Valley to the beach, after carefully locating both village and path well above the high-water mark of the oft-flooding creek. Topanga Canyon Boulevard means Above Canyon Boulevard. Which is a real brain-twister, since Topanga Creek then has to mean Above Creek. Which is, frankly, impossible.
12. La Tijera Boulevard:
Lest it be left off this official list, high praise to Scissors Boulevard, which everyone uses and thanks at least once in their lifetime for helping them make their plane on time.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said 55 percent of L.A. residents are Spanish speakers. The correct U.S. Census number is 43 percent.