There are all sorts of unusual places names in this part of the country we call “The Southland.” We have names of historic English derivation, not so unlike what you'd find back in the civilized East (Whittier, Torrance, Hawthorne, Glendale). We have place names of Spanish derivation (Tujunga, Reseda, Calabasas, San Gabriel, Palos Verdes), which make good sense given the geography and history of the region. We even have the odd Dutch name (Van Nuys).
But a handful of L.A.-area place names are kooky, bizarre and undignified enough to warrant serious mention — and a little research as to how just how they got that way.
Yes, your first thought is the correct thought: This middle class-to-upscale west San Fernando Valley community is named after the fictional character Tarzan. Unlike towns named after esteemed colonial figures, turn-of-the-century industrialists or U.S. military heroes, this leafy L.A. neighborhood owes its moniker to a ripped, long-haired, nearly naked man-beast, an icon of pop culture that made other males jealous and females swoon — hey, wait, we're lucky we don't have a Fabioville!
The great author Edgar Rice Burroughs bought a ranch around 1915 in what was then a sparsely populated area of L.A. on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains. At the time, neither California nor the federal government had any laws against egregiously shitty taste nor excessive egotism in the naming of things, so he slapped an 'a' onto his literary creation, and several years later, in 1927, the area's residents voted to adopt it officially as their address. Burroughs was a great writer and his Tarzan series (along with the rest of his insanely prolific body of work, including the John Carter/Mars books) are great fun. But a writer naming a neighborhood after one of his protagonists could have been a dangerous precedent. Care to live in Katnisstown? How about Hobbita, or even Harrypotterville?
The name Diamond Bar could cause a lot of dissonance and confusion in the linguistic-associative part of your brain. On the one hand, when you hear “Diamond,” you think opulence – a pile of glittering jewels. On the other hand, hearing the word “Bar” brings to mind a candy bar, so overpoweringly primal is the sensation of a dense, chocolatey snack. Put the two words together and you can't help but think of a chocolate bar encrusted with diamonds: a valuable yet ultimately useless concoction, tempting yet sure to cause fatal intestinal injuries.
In fact, Diamond Bar is a wealthy place, populated by a lot of the Inland Empire's upper crust, who undoubtedly do possess bowls full of diamonds, but probably don't eat them embedded in novelty confections. The absurd name originated after area rancher Frederick E Lewis established his “diamond over a bar” branding iron in 1918, leading to years of huge-scale cattle ranching in the area. Yet it took until 1989 for this handsome hilltop suburb, located by the 60 Fwy / 57 Fwy intersection and near the L.A.-Orange-San Bernardino tri-county line, to become officially incorporated as a city. While the name has an attractively clean ring to it, to the non-Southern California ear, it still sounds like a roadhouse, an accessory worn by a gangsta rapper, or two-thirds of the result of a slot machine spin.
Turn the page for a few more weird place names, including Panorama City.
A panorama is a wide, encompassing view. What this has to do with Panorama City, an east/central San Fernando Valley enclave, is anybody's guess. While one can certainly see the San Gabriel and Verdugo Mountains that encircle the Valley from this locale, it is not particularly vista-rich terrain. In fact, it's mainly a level grid of residential streets, business-laden thoroughfares, quite a few strip malls and one giant mall called The Plant, occupying the location of what was the nation's largest General Motors assembly plant before its decommission in 1992.
By the name you might think that a special camera was developed here, one that offered a wider range of image. Say, Panavision. But that company is actually based in Woodland Hills, miles to the southwest. You might even, like me, confuse a panorama with a diorama and imagine that the neighborhood either hosts a vast exhibit of tiny-scale buildings or that it is a collection of tiny-scale buildings, lived in by mice, but these too would be fallacious theories.
Panorama City was founded and created as a planned residential community by industrialist Henry J Kaiser and his partner Fritz Burns. You could say that these men had a very un-panoramic view of humanity, as they barred non-white people from buying homes in their new community, a reality that was undone by the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. Today, changing demographic tides have caused opponents of residential racism to have the last laugh as Kaiser and Burns' all-white suburb is known not only for having a sizable Latino population, but also as the location of the Valley's bustling “Little Manila” district. Come to think of it, “Panorama” does sound like it could be a word found in Tagalog.
Hawaiian Gardens is neither Hawaiian, nor is it covered with gardens. Discuss.
At heart, this is another L.A.-area place name based on wishful thinking. Who wouldn't want to visit Hawaii? And if you couldn't actually go to Hawaii, who wouldn't want to visit a simulated environment that mimics the Aloha State, right here in southern California? Gardens are nice, so Hawaiian gardens must be even nicer, all full of pineapples and coconuts and ukeleles growing on trees.
In fact, Hawaiian Gardens is a fairly dense little suburban city in southern L.A. County, right on the Orange County line, most famous for its “casino,” one of that strange handful of modest yet garishly appointed pseudo-casinos found around L.A., offering the money-losing opportunities afforded by Vegas with none of that annoying top-flight food, architecture or jet-set excitement. Hawaiian Gardens, which sits in a notably strong tri-city public school district, got its name from a well known tropical-themed refreshment stand that opened there in the 1920s.
But hell, with its casino employing a workforce of 1,000 and giving the city millions of dollars in revenue each year, undoubtedly everyone who lives in this idyllically named suburb can afford a nice garden and an annual plane trip to Hawaii.
The name Commerce is shockingly literal and simplistic. It's the kind of name a precocious 3rd grader might give to towns in some representational Farmville board game, or maybe Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, commerce is a good and necessary thing for a municipality, but if that's how all of them were named, then Hollywood would instead be called Exploitation and Santa Monica would be named Yoga. Where's the poetry?
Well-populated and host to numerous factories by 1920, but not incorporated until 1960, the name of this suburb just a few miles southeast of downtown L.A. on the 5 Freeway actually was given in the hope that it would be a positive omen for the city's economics. And it seems to have worked, as this tiny metropolis of almost 13,000 enjoys a casino – just like its bizarrely named brethren Hawaiian Gardens – and a gigantic mall with an amazingly theme park-like facade of ornate, imposing castle walls named, quite awesomely, The Citadel.
Hey, Commerce! Here's an advertising slogan idea for you: “Commerce Means Business!” It's civic boosterism and a lesson in synonyms.
Turn the page for the final place on our list with a strange name — and its surprising corporate citizen.
New Jersey, Indiana and Michigan are full of industry. But even those states don't have a city actually called “Industry.” Like “Commerce,” it's just way too blunt, too on the nose.
Making matters worse, the City of Industry doesn't even live up to the name. You'd expect a thick, polluted snarl of pipes, smokestacks and wires, a dense, hyper-industrialized moonscape. But that would be more like the City of Vernon (factories, warehouses and train tracks) or Wilmington (monstrous oil refinery with pipes that perpetually spit fire). The City of Industry would be more accurately named The City of Lite Industry.
Situated in a surprisingly pleasant hollow, abutted by hills in the southern San Gabriel Valley, Industry, CA, has neat, clean warehouses and unassuming corporate office buildings. It even boasts a spiffy, somewhat grand golf course/hotel “resort” property called Pacific Palms, spread over grassy and scenic rolling hills.
Founded in 1957 in a business-related grab meant to keep neighboring communities from annexing valuable land, Industry had only 219 residents at the last census, but houses 80,000 jobs at businesses like Hot Topic, FedEx, Yum-Yum Donuts headquarters and Newegg.com.
It also contains the headquarters for the Spearmint Rhino chain. And for a lot of men (and some women?) in L.A. County, isn't that all you need to know?