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 for filming. 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 Hipsters 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 an entire 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 — which are still there, although you do have to travel a bit inland to find them. 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!

A company town

Despite its size, Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is entertainment — film, television, and music, and to a lesser extent gaming and internet. So, growing up here, seeing film crews and running into celebrities all over the place was always quite normal. Hell, I went to school with the kids of pretty big celebrities and never thought much of it. “Your dad is who? Whatever.”

But here’s one thing I don’t think a lot of non-locals understand: None of the major studios are actually in Hollywood. How the city of Hollywood — which is where I was actually born — became conflated with the movies is a very interesting story. Once upon a time, there were some studios there. Charlie Chaplin built his at La Brea and Sunset in 1917. It was later owned by Herb Alpert, when it was A&M Studios and produced music. Currently, it’s the location of the Jim Henson Company. The Hollywood Hills were also a popular location for celebrities to live, and a lot of the old apartment buildings in the city were originally designed for young singles who worked in the industry.

Come to think of it, they still serve that purpose, although given the cost of rent in this town, a lot of those studio units are cramming in two tenants.

The one thing that Hollywood did have in abundance: Movie premieres, and that’s still the case to this day. The Chinese, The Egyptian, and the El Capitan are perennial landmarks, and the Boulevard itself is quite often still closed down on Wednesdays for red carpet openings. Although Broadway downtown also boasts its own movie palaces from the golden age of cinema, it was always Hollywood Boulevard that had the great grand openings. It’s also still home to the Pantages, which is the biggest live theater venue outside of downtown, although they generally only do gigantic Broadway style musicals. (Side note on the Chinese Theater — although it’s technically called the TCL Chinese because, owners, nobody refers to it that way, and you’re still more likely to hear it called what it always was: Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Want to sound like a local? That’s how you do it. You’re welcome.)

There is one Hollywood tradition that does not date from the golden age of cinema, though, and it might surprise you. The Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t proposed until the 1950s, and construction on it didn’t begin until 1960 — long after all of the movie studios had left the area.

In case you’re wondering where those studios went, a number of them are in the oft-derided Valley: Universal in Studio City (they like to call themselves “Hollywood” but they’re not), Warner Bros. in Burbank, Disney in Burbank and Glendale, and Dreamworks Animation SKG in Glendale (across from Disney Animation!) all come to mind — and damn, I’ve worked for three out of four of them. On the other side of the hill, in L.A. proper, Sony is in Culver City, 20th Century Fox is in Century City (which was named for the studio), and Paramount is in L.A. proper, right next to RKO, which really isn’t doing much lately, both due south of Hollywood and right behind the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — which isn’t in Hollywood either, but which has a large number of dead celebrities. I think that covers most of the majors. YouTube Studios is in Playa del Rey, on the former sight of the Hughes helicopter factory that also happens to be right below the university I went to for film school, Loyola Marymount.

Like I said, company town.

The other fun part about growing up here is all of the film locations that I see every day, and there are tons. Ever see Boogie Nights? Well, most of that film was basically shot within a five mile radius of where I grew up, with only a few exceptions. Dirk Diggler’s fancy new house once he became a porn star? Yeah, my old hood. Location of the club where Burt Reynold’s character finds Mark Wahlberg’s character? I took music lessons a few blocks away from there. Parking lot where Dirk is mistakenly gay-bashed? Pretty close to the public library where I fell in love with reading.

Remember The Brady Bunch or the movies? Well, that house is only a couple of miles away from where I live now. The OG bat cave? Let me take you to Griffith Park. If you’ve ever seen Myra Breckenridge (you should if you haven’t) the place where Myra dances in the opening is right next to where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now and two doors down from the now Disney-owned El Capitan.

The Loved One (an amazing movie) — Forest Lawn Glendale, where I happen to have at least four ancestors buried. Xanadu? The major setting was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a burned down wreck in my day, but it’s where my dad used to go on date night to roller skate. Go to the Vista Theatre? It sits on the site where D.W. Griffith built one of his biggest sets for Intolerance, his “mea culpa” for making The Birth of a Nation.

I’m not even going to get into how many times the complex I live in has been used for various epic TV shoots (which is a lot) or, likewise, how the area in NoHo I work in is used by everybody, from YouTubers to major studios. Although, I can tell you that having to put up with film crews and their needs is always a major pain in the ass, especially when it comes to parking vanishing. That’s right — there’s really no glamor in show biz outside of that red carpet.

But I guess that’s the price of admission for growing up and living in a company town and, honestly, I’ve never had a single adult job that wasn’t related to that company ever. (We won’t count my high school jobs as wire-puller for an electrical contractor and pizza delivery drone.)

Otherwise, though — yep. Whether it’s been TV, film, theater, or publishing, I’ve never not worked in this crazy stupid industry that my home town is host to. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. What? Wait tables? Never. Although sharing my home town with tourists is a distinct possibility. I love this place. A lot. And you should too, whether you’re a visitor or a transplant. Welcome!

Nothing changes until we change it

You’ve probably never heard of Milton Slocum Latham unless you’re a serious California history nerd. I’d never heard of him until today, but I discovered him because I looked up a list of California governors. I did this because the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, announced that she was giving up her current party affiliation in order to become independent. I was curious as to which governor had put her on the court and who made her Chief Justice.

Note that I don’t really want to discuss partisan politics here. You can look up the particulars yourself. Suffice it to say that Cantil-Sakauye was appointed by a governor of her own party, then made chief justice by a governor from the other party. But what really caught my eye was going down that list of California governors and realizing that there have been a lot of tumultuous changes.

For one thing, a lot of governors served very short terms, and either resigned or were not re-elected or even nominated. This seemed particularly common in the 19th century, which makes sense considering that California came into the union in 1850 as a free state (i.e., slavery was illegal), but seemed to have a lot of Democratic governors around the time of the Civil War. And, if you’re not ignorant of history, you know that, at that time, the Democratic Party was mostly on the pro-slavery side while the Republicans were anti-slavery. This was before the great reversal of sides begun under FDR and completed while LBJ was president.

The first Republican governor of California was Leland Stanford — you might recognize his name from that little university in the northern part of the state. Elected in 1861, he only served one term at a time when the governor’s term was only two years. The law changed to double that term as soon as he left office, of course, although he did go on to serve as a U.S. Senator for California for eight years, until his death in 1893.

Stanford isn’t the only governor to have namesake places in the state. The city of Downey was named for the seventh governor, John Gately Downey, who, until Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the only governor of the state not born in the U.S. (he was Irish.) On the other hand, while it’s been claimed that Haight Street in San Francisco was named for Henry Huntly Haight, the tenth governor, that’s probably not true. This claim was first made in 1989, but the oldest mention of the street’s namesake, from 1916, says that it was probably named for Fletcher Haight, a local lawyer and district judge who, coincidentally perhaps, died the year before the other Haight became governor. And it does make sense. Governors tend to get things bigger than streets named after them.

But let’s get back to Milton Slocum Latham, the sixth governor of California, and the person to hold the singular distinction of having served the shortest term to date in that position: five days, from January 9, 1860 to January 14, 1860. He immediately preceded the aforementioned Governor Downey, by the way.

Now, why was Latham’s term so short? Did a scandal throw him out of office? Was his election invalidated, or did he pull a William Henry Harrison and drop dead? Perhaps he changed his mind and quit? Nope. None of the above, but definite proof that some things in politics never change.

See, just after Latham’s election, one of Calfornia’s Senators, David Colbreth Broderick, went and got himself killed in a duel that was most definitely related to the contentious issue of slavery, although Broderick was also apparently quite corrupt, and had made a fortune running San Francisco the same way that Tammany Hall (a thing, not a person) had run New York. All this makes me rather ashamed to admit that ol’ Brod and I have the same birthday. Dammit.

On the other hand, he was part of an attempted offshoot of the Democratic Party at the time, the Free Soil Democrats. They were the ones opposed to slavery expanding into the west. (Note: They were not necessarily anti-slavery. They just didn’t want it moving to other states.) After a little insult battle between Broderick and David S. Terry, a former California Chief Justice no less, the two met to duel. Broderick’s pistol anti-Hamiltoned and threw away its shot by firing as he drew and putting the bullet into the ground. Terry then nailed him in the right lung.

The duel happened six days after the general election that Latham won with 60% of the voters. That election was on September 7, 1859, the duel was September 13, and Broderick died on the 16th. So at least we can say Latham did not run with the intent of taking that senate seat, right?

That didn’t stop him once he was in office and, since this was back in the days when Senators were still appointed by their states instead of elected, Latham did a little wheeling and dealing, and the rest was rather dubious history.

He was not re-elected to a second senate term and died in 1882, in New York, at the age of 54.

But now to the point of this history lesson. There’s really nothing new in politics. Only the names of the people and parties and the methods through which information is exchanged evolve. I’m sure that Broderick’s duel and Latham’s gambit were covered in the newspapers and periodicals at the time, discussed in the private clubs, and propagated by telegraph.

And regardless of the parties involved, I think we can all agree that somebody being elected to one office only to lobby for a sudden vacancy in a higher office after less than a week shows heinous disregard for the people who elected them — especially when that election came with a 60% majority.

Yet we see this sort of thing all the time, as an elected official will suddenly start campaigning for an office higher up, sometimes right after they’ve been sworn in. It seems particularly bad with governors who want to run for senator or president, and senators who want to run for president, but it happens at all levels. I’ve seen city council members start to stump to become the next mayor less than halfway through their first term, mayors campaigning for governor once they’ve moved into city hall, and so on.

Now I have no objection whatsoever to an elected official wanting to work their way up the food chain. That’s how it should be. I just think that we need to make them take some time to do it, which is why I think we need a little adjustment to the law. Well two adjustments.

First, does anyone else think that it’s insane, in this day and age, that people elected to the U.S. House of Representatives serve only two years? In effect, this really means that any Rep is basically spending all of their term campaigning for their next election. The California gubernatorial term doubled from two to four years well over a century ago. We need to update the House of Reps to at least four years as well.

And, for that matter, why does the Senate get six? I can understand the idea of staggering those elections into three classes, like they are now, but why not four year terms for everyone, staggered into two classes, half elected every two years? Although, given recent behavior, it really should be flipped: House term of six years, Senate term of two. Just a thought.

But the real proposal is this one:

  1. No person newly elected for the first time to any position in the government of the United States or any of its states, counties, cities, or other political jurisdictions, shall seek, campaign for, file for, raise funds for the purpose of, or otherwise pursue, election to a different position within the aforementioned governmental jurisdictions prior to the completion of one (1) complete term to which they have been elected.
  2. Any incumbent elected official in any of the jurisdictions mentioned in §1 shall not seek, campaign for, file for, raise funds for the purpose of, or otherwise pursue, election to any different position within the government unless the term for which they would be newly elected begins on or after the date that their current term would normally expire according to applicable law. This exception does not apply to a first-term official in any capacity.
  3. None of the above restrictions shall apply to an elected official seeking to be re-elected to the same position they already occupy; nor to previously elected officials who are not currently in office for reasons other than impeachment, censure, or conviction of felonies; nor to an elected official who is not eligible to run for the same office again due to term limits.

I think those rules are fair all the way around. If you want the job, at least do it for what you contracted for. If you want to apply for another job, make sure it starts after this one ends. If you want to keep your job by reapplying, or go back to work after leaving, or are going to get laid off — then do what you want.

If your only purpose in running for office is to leap-frog your way to the top of the pile as quickly as possible for the sake of power, then we don’t need you in office. Milton Slocum Latham learned that lesson first hand. There’s also a very local and specific example from Los Angeles, but I won’t mention any names here. The important part is that, as with Latham, the voters figured it out and soon said “No.” But we really need to enshrine that automatic no into the law.

And that’s not really a political position one way or the other, since this really is a case of “both sides do it.” It’s just common sense, and another way to try to restore some sanity to our political system.