“Latitudes” Navigates The Histories and Cultures of L.A.
By Oliver Wang
May 7, 2015
To drive in the Los Angeles of the 1980s invariably meant relying on a Thomas Guide map-book at some point. Whether tucked neatly into a glove compartment or, more likely, tossed atop snack crumbs and loose change on the floor, the spiral-bound Thomas Guides fractured the city into hundreds of gridded pages, each colored with pastel arrays demarcating various municipalities and neighborhoods. Determining driving directions meant new page coordinates awaited, like a cartographic “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” novel. The Thomas Guide intended to simplify the city’s sprawl down to a simple, geometric scale, yet it also made Los Angeles feel endless, as if each page would invariably point you to a new one.
The new anthology “LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas” dives into that unruly geography with a concept inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s own urban atlas projects for San Francisco (“Infinite City”) and New Orleans (“Unfathomable City”). Editor Patricia Wakida invited more than 20 essayists to engage the spatial dimensions of L.A.’s polyglot histories, cultures and communities, and cartographer David Deis and illustrator Leighton Kelly create relevant maps to run alongside.
Especially as modern Los Angeles began to take form in the decades leading up to and through World War II, maps were an integral part of how the city pitched itself to curious tourists, opportunistic speculators and itinerant workers. As Glen Creason, map librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library, writes in the introduction, those promotional maps “helped the city grow physically, spiritually, and intellectually” by letting “the world know LA was a vital part of the American experience.”
Maps have also literally defined the city for its residents, a point Rosten Woo makes clear in “Naming Los Angeles.” Woo reviews some of the byzantine politics of place-naming, where the line separating Van Nuys from Sherman Oaks may be arbitrary but still influences real estate prices and community identities. The accompanying map tries to include every L.A. micro-hood, from Olive View in Sylmar down to Long Beach’s Belmont Shore, but as Woo’s essay shows, this is, at best, a snapshot of how L.A. names itself, not a permanent record. Read Rest of Review Here