The odd origins of 7 city names in Los Angeles County

A lot of place names for cities and streets are pretty straightforward. They come from famous people, frequently those involved with its founding: Burbank, Lankershim, Van Nuys; or from physical features: La Mirada, La Puente, Eagle Rock. But some place names have slightly weirder origins. Here are a few from my home county of Los Angeles.

  1. Agoura Hills: This somewhat rustic and suburban enclave is located on the extreme western edge of the county, a bit beyond the West Valley made famous as the birthplace of the Valley Girl archetype. Originally, most of it belonged to a sheep ranch owned in the 19th century by a man named Pierre Agoure. By the 20th century, the place was called “Picture City,” because Paramount studios owned their own ranch out there and various film companies used it to shoot their own. When the residents needed to establish a post office, they had to come up with a name, and they voted in 1927. In a very pre-internet version of Boaty McBoatface, the winner decided to name it after that sheep rancher, but whether the person who made the nomination goofed up or the government worker who tallied the entries is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, Pierre Agoure became the namesake of Agoura, later Agoura Hills.
  2. Azusa: This is a neighborhood out beyond Pasadena. Marketers would love to have you think that this town was named because it has “Everything from A to Z in the USA,” but that’s just a bunch of bunk. In reality, like many place names in California, this one was stolen from the natives, in this case the Tongva, who called the area Asuksagna, their word for “skunk place.” As someone who’s driven on the freeway through the area multiple times on evenings when, as we like to put it, “a skunk went off in the hills,” it’s a rather apt description. You can smell those cute but dank little buggers for miles, whether your windows are up or down. Other place names Tongva have given us are Canoga Park and Tujunga.
  1. Echo Park: Located not too far from downtown, you’ve probably seen this lake and its fountains in many a film and music video. This is one of those place name origins that will sound like a total urban legend until you get to the explanation. When this artificial lake was built in 1892, Superintendent of City Parks Joseph Henry Tomlinson picked the name Echo Park because, well, that’s what he heard when people shouted at the construction site — but those echoes went away as soon as the project was finished. It sounds weird until you realize that, in order to create an artificial lake, human engineers had to create a gigantic concrete quarry first, so while that thing was set up and empty, of course it was echo city. But as soon as it was filled with water, ta-da: Echoes no more. Doesn’t seem so weird now, does it?
  1. Los Feliz: Directly south of Griffith Park and probably most famous because Swingers was shot in the Dresden Room right in the middle of town, Los Feliz is one of those interesting places in L.A. that not only seems to be named wrong, but which everyone pronounces wrong. On its face, “los” is a plural article but “feliz” is a singular noun. It’s a Spanish thing, but the expression should be either el or la feliz, for “the happy one” (feliz doesn’t change regarding the gender) or los or las felices, for “the happy ones.” On top of that, people in L.A. tend to pronounce it as “Las FEELis,” rather than the correct way, “Los FayLEASE.” (If you know the song “Feliz Navidad,” then you know how the word is supposed to be pronounced.) Now here’s where it gets more interesting. “Los Feliz” is actually correct, but for only one reason. It doesn’t refer to a happy person or persons. Rather, it refers to an entire family with the surname Feliz, founded by a Spanish explorer named José Feliz. They owned land in the area for years, had a very colorful history, and, in this case, Los Feliz correctly refers to the Feliz family. Unlike English, where you might refer to “The Smiths” to mean the entire Smith Family, Spanish only changes the article, so “Los Feliz” really means “the Feliz family.”
  1. Sylmar: This is way up on the north central part of the San Fernando Valley, and a place that is more known by name than by anyone actually ever going there. This one is short and sweet. The name was created by cobbling together the Latin words for forest and sea: sylvia and mar. (Sylvia is also part of the name of the state of Pennsylvania — Penn’s forest.) At the time it was named, the place had a lot of olive trees and was the location of Olive View Hospital, which was destroyed in an event that will be forever associated with the city, the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971.
  1. Tarzana: Mostly known as that bedroom community stuck up in the hills that tries to keep Woodland Hills and Reseda from banging into each other, Tarzana has a simple etymology that looks like it’s made up, but it’s not. It’s where Edgar Rice Burroughs eventually retired to. Ol’ Edgar was most famous for creating the character called Tarzan. The place needed a name, he was a famous resident. Ta-da: Tarzana.
  1. Venice: While it’s not a huge leap to realize that Venice, California, was named after Venice, Italy, if you only know this hippie/hipster hangout stuck between Santa Monica and LAX for its boardwalk and colorful people and street vendors, it’s easy to forget that it was originally absolutely intended to recreate the original Venice, right down to the canals — some of which are still there, although you do have to travel a bit inland to find them. The main plaza leading to the beach was also designed to resemble Piazza San Marco in the original Venice, although on a much smaller scale. Its founder, Abbot Kinney, was a polyglot who spoke six languages, and eventually made his fortune from tobacco. Originally called Venice of America, it opened in 1905, and was an immediate success. Kinney died of lung cancer as karma took its revenge in 1920. Nearly a century later, Venice is still a success as one of the more recognizable and unique parts of L.A., and well worth the visit for tourists and locals alike.

What are some interesting place names with weird origins where you live? Share in the comments!

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