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My Maps of Los Angeles

My Maps of Los Angeles

A SHORT STORY BY ANDRÉS CARRASQUILLO

I’d been living in Los Angeles for a week when I was asked to make a map of it. I knew my knowledge was thin. To the east, I drew my apartment in Koreatown with a small grid of adjacent streets. To the west, I drew two boxes representing buildings where I took classes at UCLA. Then I connected these places with a long path representing my commute.

The point of this exercise was to demonstrate a third dimension: you begin with a base map of basic information, like a street grid, natural features, or the names of key landmarks. On top of that, you place information: a layer locating where events had occurred, a layer illustrating transportation networks, a layer that identifies development projects. But layers can also be conceptual: layers of senses, layers of memory, or to be speculative, layers of dreams. 

I worked in a group for this exercise. We each drew a map on a piece of paper then passed it along to the next person. I drew my map, then I passed that map too, and on the next map I received, my map became the third layer. Then the fourth, and the fifth.

On each map, the two places I knew—the small grid of streets and two boxes connected by one long path—mixed with new information: the network of freeways, neighboring suburbs, landmarks. 

The street grid that the Spanish impressed upon the village of Yaanga to create the Pueblo of Los Angeles in the 19th century had been placed at a slant. The 1573 Laws of the Indies laid out a comprehensive plan for the creation of Spanish pueblos across the Americas, and part of this plan was to offset the street grid by 45 degrees from the cardinal directions. At this angle, the sun would shine more evenly on homes throughout the day, and the wind would not blow so harshly.

The early grid of Los Angeles did not follow this plan. To the east, the Porciúncula River was prone to flooding, unleashing floods that the river would rip new paths through the basin. The receding water would leave behind swamps, making rough terrain for the formation of a pueblo. 

Nearly a century after the founding of the Pueblo in present-day downtown Los Angeles, city planners embarked on the task of mapping out a comprehensive plan for the city. 

Published in 1970, it imagined Los Angeles as a city of many cities, a collection of downtowns connected by rapid transit. You wouldn’t need to travel very far to get where you needed to go.

“AS A MAP BECOMES LARGER, THE PLACES IT DEPICTS GROW SMALLER. THE MOUNTAINS AND THE OCEAN TAKE ON A SMOOTHER TEXTURE, AND CARS MOVE SLOWLY ALONG THE FREEWAYS. WHEN YOU CAN TAKE IN ALL AT ONCE THE ENTIRE WORLD, YOU LOSE THE DETAILS—THE CLOSE UP VIEW OF THE LIFE YOU LIVE.”

As a map becomes larger, the places it depicts grow smaller. The mountains and the ocean take on a smoother texture, and cars move slowly along the freeways. When you can take in all at once the entire world, you lose the details—the close up view of the life you live.

In a Lyft, I told the driver I was new to Los Angeles and he explained the highways to me. “You can use freeways to get anywhere,” he concluded. “Except for here.” He pointed to the gap between freeways in the center of the city, just above the blue dot that identified our location along the 105 freeway. 

In 1986 the Los Angeles Times reflected on the many issues linked to the construction of the 105, the newest freeway in Los Angeles, determining, “The Century Freeway will certainly be the Los Angeles area’s last major freeway.”

When I moved to Los Angeles, there were already plans in motion for a new future. Los Angeles Metro published a map of transit projects to be built with this investment. On the map the existing network was color coded by the names of the transit lines: Blue, Red, Purple, Orange, Green, Gold, Silver. Layered on top of this map were the new lines anticipated for the future. 

When you traverse Los Angeles, you simultaneously traverse the maps that made it: the Centers Concept, the transit system map, the paths of highways, the former paths of the Los Angeles River. Also among the layers are those of your personal history, the places that you love, the places where you mean to go.

“IF I COULD OBSERVE THE TOTALITY OF MY MOVEMENT AS A LINE, I COULD LOOK THROUGH THE LAYERS TO REMIND MYSELF OF THE CLUSTERS AT THE PLACES I LOVED.”

If the blue dot that locates me on the map on my phone also drew a line of my movement, that line would create a long intersecting path. If I could observe the totality of my movement as a line, I could look through the layers to remind myself of the clusters at the places I loved. All the way down, I would be left with a single point on an open plane.

If I could see how the line recording my movement will travel into the future, in layers that are yet to form, I would see the clusters move, swell in place, and shift across the map. New paths would curl out like tendrils then form strong branches between new places. The layers of map would continue, stacking taller than me, so tall that I could not discern where the layers of the map would end, or if they even end at all.

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