From Frogtown to Manhattan Beach, the origin stories of nearly two dozen Los Angeles cities and neighborhoods
In the compact recorded history of Los Angeles, a surprising number of neighborhoods, developments, and village names have come and gone. Glen Creason, historian, author, and map librarian at the city’s Central Library, names a few of his favorites: Dusky Glen, Senorita, Bangle, Klondike Park, Montezuma, Poppy Fields, Cape of Good Hope, Devil’s Gate, Funston, and Barnes City. These monikers didn’t survive the wild west Los Angeles real estate frenzy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but many of the neighborhoods and cities we know and live in today were named during that heady time.
With so many developments and subdivisions springing up over the past 150 years, names came about in a variety of ways. “They allowed the citizens of Glendale to vote for the name of their city,” Creason says. “It was decided in a narrow margin that Glendale would beat out Indianapolis.”
Many communities took their names from aristocratic or literary roots. According to Janet Atkinson, author of the highly informative Los Angeles County Historical Directory, the town of Chatsworth was named by Spencer Compton Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, for his family estate of Chatsworth. Hawthorne was named after the revered American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, while Montrose, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s A Legend of Montrose, was the winning entry in a naming contest.
Other names had more plebeian origins. According to Atkinson, Glendora was named for the glen behind founder George D. Whitcomb’s house and his wife, Leadora. Baldwin Hills and Village were both named after the infamous landowner and racetrack owner Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, who had once owned the development’s land. Still others derived from Spanish and Mexican ranchos, and a precious few from the native Californians who lived in the area for centuries.
To Creason, these names illustrate the “total melting pot aspect of LA.” They also illustrate “the see-saw between the Spanish roots and the carpetbagger and developer squelching of other cultures,” Creason says. “The other kind of sad truth is that much of the naming of things was done by those with money and not those who lived in certain places.”
While most residents of this quirky neighborhood skirting the LA River prefer the neighborhood’s official name, Elysian Valley, this nickname has stuck for decades. According to Carren Jo of KCET, at the turn of the last century an encampment of railroad workers in the area called it Gopher Flats. It wasn’t until the 1930s that it got the nickname Frogtown, a misnomer for the hundreds of tiny western toads that swarmed the area. “There were so many toads that they would cover the streets. People couldn’t drive or walk without running over a few of them,” longtime resident Raul Rodriguez told KCET. Over the years, toads have disappeared from the neighborhood, but the name remains the same.
In 1867, dentist Dr. David Burbank bought portions of the former Rancho La Providencia and Rancho San Rafael as an investment property. Although he built a ranch house and raised sheep on the land, he seems to have known that its real value lay in the future. Burbank occasionally sold plots to other farmers and brokered a right-of-way to the Southern Pacific Railroad for the nominal sum of $1. His investment paid off in 1886, when he sold his ranch to the Providencia Land, Water and Development Co. for $250,000. The ranch was subdivided and lots put up for sale on May 1, 1887. The new development was named Burbank, and thus the quintessential Valley city is forever associated with its forward-thinking former owner.
It’s not what you think! Though the large reservoir that dominates this hip Eastside enclave often seems to shimmer like dull tin, that has nothing to do with its name. According to Michael Locke and Vincent Brook, authors of Silver Lake Chronicles, the reservoir was named after German-native Herman Silver, whose fascinating life took him all over the West, working with the IRS, as a lawyer, and the manager of the Denver Tribune.
In Los Angeles he worked for the railroads and was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1896. Considered an honest, straightforward man, he was elected president of the city’s highly fraught Board of Water Commissioners in 1902. In 1907, William Mulholland recommended that the city’s newest reservoir should be named after the levelheaded public servant. Silver died in 1913, but his name lives on.
The origin of this seaside city’s name stretches to 1769. That year, Father Joan (or Juan) Crespi, a Franciscan monk traveling with the Spanish Portola expedition along the California Coast, wrote in his diary of exploring the Los Angeles Basin. The explorers came upon the Kuruvungna Springs (which ran through what is now West LA into the Santa Monica Canyon before heading out into the Pacific Ocean). According to Crespi, the waters were reminiscent of “the tears of Santa Monica,” a 3rd century Algerian saint who was the mother of Saint Augustine. Allegedly, the name stuck and was officially recorded in 1839 when Juan Alvarado gifted the Reyes and Marquez family with the sprawling Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, which includes present day Santa Monica.
Historic Filipinotown (HiFi)
Part of the larger neighborhood of Westlake in Central Los Angeles, HiFi was officially recognized by the city in 2002. But immigrants from the Philippines have called this area home since the 1950s and have been fighting for official designation since the 1970s.
According to the Los Angeles Times, residents moved here after the original Filipinotown in downtown, called “Little Manila,” was displaced by city initiatives. Filipino leaders opened businesses in their new neighborhood and started to forge a community identity. In 2002, current Mayor and then L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti was able to push through a bill officially designating HiFi as a neighborhood.
Another neighborhood name, another developer. This beloved community was for many years owned by the legendary Baldwin family as part of their sprawling holdings. In 1927, Clara Baldwin Stocker sold approximately 230 acres of land to Walter H. Leimert, already a seasoned real estate developer. Never one to shy away from adulatory publicity, Leimert named his new subdivision after himself. So confident was he in his investment, Leimert took out the following ad in the Los Angeles Times:
I have, now, for the first time, permitted my name to be applied to a subdivision. I do so because I am 100% convinced that the 230 acres I have purchased […] present a magnificent opportunity for the creation of a very beautiful and highly successful residential and business development.
One of the first master-planned communities in Los Angeles, Leimert Park would be the only one of Walter’s numerous creations, including Cheviot Knolls, Beverlywood, and Rancho Malibu.
The Los Angeles River inspired the name of this up and coming eastside neighborhood near the foothills of Griffith Park. Originally part of the Rancho San Rafael, a portion was later renamed the Rancho Santa Eulalia. According to the Atwater Village Chamber of Commerce, it was christened Atwater sometime after 1902 by a group of developers. The name paid homage to the nearby LA River, combining “at” with the word “water.” The “village” was not added until 1986.
It’s a classic tale of the cart before the horse. In December 1886, a syndicate of developers registered 500 acres of newly subdivided land in the La Ballona Valley, which had been made valuable by the arrival of the railroad. The syndicate named their new community “The Palms”—after the iconic tree—even though they had to bring in the palm trees to be planted. One newspaper reported:
The local of this paper the other day had a look at the ‘Palms,’ an incipient town on the line of the S.P. road, some five miles from Santa Monica. It is no longer a misnomer as the proprietors have planted two large palms near the depot and some 160 plants on the various driveways. A force is grading the streets and we are told that it is the intention to plant all the avenues with shade trees of various kinds.
The ruse succeeded, and by 1904, the Travelers’ Handbook to Southern California reported that The Palms was “named from the number of large palms which dot the region for quite a distance near the Southern Pacific depot.”
This quaint, artistic Highland Park neighborhood was originally part of the Rancho San Rafael. According to KCET, one of the staple crops grown here were garbanzo beans, and garbanzo bean fields covered the area. Thus, locals called the area “garbanzo.” In 1886, Ralph and Edward Rogers developed the land, subdividing it into the exotically renamed “Town of Garvanza.”
This San Fernando Valley bedroom community is named for one of LA County’s most flamboyant early residents. The immensely wealthy and charming General Moses H. Sherman arrived in LA in 1891 and quickly became a railroad magnate, a real estate dynamo and a player in LA’s shady water wars as part of a syndicate that purchased 47,000 acres of ranchland in the San Fernando Valley. As part of the LA Suburban Homes Co., he developed 1,000 acres of his Valley land covered in his favorite tree—the oak. In 1927, this tract, christened Sherman Oaks, opened, featuring large lots at only $780 an acre. Those were the days.
The story of Los Feliz is as old as the history of Los Angeles itself. Family patriarch Jose Vicente Feliz was a soldier from Sonora, and a member of the legendary Anza expedition. In 1781, he helped lead and guard the original settlers of the pueblo of Los Angeles. He was eventually named de facto mayor and credited as a firm and fair leader. In the 1790s, he was granted more than 6,000 acres of land (which includes Griffith Park, Los Feliz, and portions of what is today Silver Lake) on which to build a ranch. Called Rancho Los Feliz, or the “happy farm,” the estate prospered for decades. The storied Feliz family would not only give their name to the neighborhood that would flourish in the 1920s, they would also supply Los Angeles with some of its best legends and myths.
Yup, your guess was right. Tarzana is indeed named after Tarzan, the legendary (and fictional) King of the Jungle. In 1919, author Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, bought Mil Flores, a sprawling country estate in the mountains above Ventura Boulevard, from Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis. Always a master self-promoter, Burroughs renamed the estate Tarzana, and began to create a self-sustaining fairyland complete with a castle, golf course, riding trials, and a menagerie of farm animals. In 1922, Burroughs decided to subdivide 50 acres of his estate—using ads that read, “Tarzan of the Apes to Sell Lots in Tarzana.” In 1928, residents of Tarzana merged with the neighboring community of Runnymede. Thus the “City of Tarzana” was born.
According to Atkinson, in 1900 a group of businessmen led by Frank S. Daugherty incorporated the Highland Beach Company. The company bought 20 acres of beachfront land that had once been part of the Rancho Sausal Redondo and developed a new community, which they called Shore Acres. Next door, a man named Stewart Miller, who also owned a portion of the old rancho, decided to name his new development after his former home: Manhattan, New York. Deciding to merge the two, community leaders tossed a coin to decide between Shore Acres and Manhattan. Manhattan won.
Around 1868, a reservoir for storing drinking water, known as Reservoir No. 4, was built by The Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Company in the rural hills of what was then West Los Angeles. Historian Nathan Masters asserts that it had been constructed to lure potential developers, but the bustling suburb that investors hoped would spring up around it never came to fruition. Eventually, the owners donated the reservoir and some surrounding land to the city for a public park.
According to legend (and the Los Angeles Times), in 1886, Englishman Joseph Henry Tomlinson, a prolific landscape architect in early Los Angeles, was tasked with transforming the public utility into a park. While working at the site one day, Tomlinson called out to his assistant, only to hear his voice echo back to him off the nearby hills. Tomlinson was charmed and named the former Reservoir No. 4 site Echo Park.
Mack Sennett was a true Hollywood renaissance man. The “King of Comedy” was not only an actor, director, producer, and studio mogul, he was also a real estate dynamo. Around 1926, he teamed up with a new real estate syndicate called the Central Motion Picture District Incorporated (which included investors like the actor Noah Beery and Paramount executive B.P. Schulberg) to develop over 500 acres of San Fernando Valley ranchland. Hoping to bring all “motion picture studios into a single district,” the syndicate struck a deal with Sennett to build a brand-new studio in the Valley. Hoping to create a true factory town, picturesque middle-class homes were planned to surround the studios. The name of this new endeavor? Studio City of course!
In the 1850s, early English-speaking pioneer Benjamin Wilson purchased the Huerta de Custe ranch, which had once been part of the sprawling Rancho San Antonio. According to Los Angeles County Historical Directory, the ranch would eventually become the towns of San Marino, South Pasadena, and Alhambra. The fanciful name of Alhambra was inspired by Wilson’s daughters Ruth and Marie, who were enthralled with Washington Irving’s historical romance Tales of the Alhambra. Wilson took the novel’s exotic Spanish theme and ran with it. “All the streets also took the names of characters in the novel,” Atkinson writes. “There were Granada, Boabdil, Vega and Almansor.”
In 1903, Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was looking for a refuge from the bustling Times newsroom and the constant controversy that his brash union-busting, SoCal boostering activities caused. To this end, he purchased twelve acres of land around what is now Sycamore and Franklin Avenues. Nestled in the small country resort of Hollywood, the property already boasted a small adobe that had been built by Don Tomas Urquidez in 1855. Always a fan of militaristic phrases, Otis named his new vacation retreat “The Outpost,” and built himself a chalet and garden, which included a flagpole said to be the “tallest in the country.”
After Otis’s death, “The Outpost” went though different owners, including movie pioneer Jesse Lasky, before ending up the hands of Hollywood developer Charles E. Toberman in 1926. Toberman christened his new development “Outpost Estates,” and began to build upper-middle class homes in the Spanish, Mediterranean, and California modern styles. To promote the development, Toberman erected a large 30-foot high, red neon sign that advertised the “Outpost” neighborhood to all of Los Angeles for years.
In 1867, a wagon train, led by Griffith Dickenson Compton, arrived on a portion of rural land which had once been part of the 75,000-acre Rancho San Pedro. As historian Cecilia Rasmussen notes in the Los Angeles Times, the wagon train consisted of 30 idealistic Methodist settlers. The small community set about building a utopian temperance colony where clean living was encouraged and alcohol was not allowed. According to Atkinson, the new village was originally christened Gibsonville, but soon renamed Comptonville in honor of Griffith Dickenson Compton. By 1869, it was known simply as Compton.
In the 1880s, a cultured, elegant woman named Daeida Wilcox was grieving the loss of her little boy. Many Sundays, Daeida and her husband, Harvey, would take long, meditative carriage rides from their home near USC to the rural Cahuenga Valley. The couple so loved the fragrant, arid valley that they bought 120 acres around what is now Hollywood and Vine. They began planning a temperate vacation community for religious, artistic Midwesterners like themselves, who were eager to spend more time in the sun.
While we know Daedia decided to name the new subdivision Hollywood, there are different legends as to why. Some claim that during a train trip Daeida spoke with a woman who told her about her Illinois country estate named “Hollywood.” Others say it was named for the California holly that grew in the Cahuenga Hills. Its ring was undeniable, and in 1887 Harvey Wilcox printed the tract first map for the new community of Hollywood.
Around 1911, scouts for the Standard Oil Company discovered an old coastal melon patch in the South Bay. “The area they were looking for had to be adjacent to the seashore, where tankers could transport oil to all parts of the world,” Atkinson explains. Standard Oil snapped up the melon patch and named it El Segundo, meaning “the second” in Spanish. Some say that the name was inspired by a woman who enthusiastically stated, “El Segundo is second to none.” Others say the company chose this odd numerical name because it would be the home of the second oil refinery that Standard Oil constructed (the first was in Northern California). By 1912, a tent city of workers soon sprang up around the newly constructed refinery, and a community was born. El Segundo was officially incorporated in 1917.
Incorporated in 1911, this rustically hip neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles was home to the Tongva Indians for generations. According to Atkinson, they named a towering large rock now at the north end of Figueroa Street the “The Bird” or the “Eagle Rock.” The rock was so named because of the wing-shaped shadow it cast over the area below. For generations the rock was used as a landmark and a navigation tool by Native Californians, and later by Spanish and Mexican settlers.
According to the Beverly Hills Historical Society, this famed enclave of the rich and famous has gone by several names over the years. The Tongva people called it “the gathering of the waters,” while the Mexican government referred to it as El Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas.
In 1868, this rich, rolling land was purchased by Edward Preuss, who hoped to develop it into a German farming community that would be called Santa Maria. In the 1880s, different developers bought the land with plans to build a neighborhood called Morocco. None of these plans would come to fruition. In 1900, a group of oil industry veterans and businessmen, including Burton E. Green bought the land, hoping to strike oil. They didn’t, but they did strike water, so they decided on the next best thing: a real estate scheme. With plans to build an exclusive, luxury bedroom community, Green came up with the perfect name: Beverly Hills. It is said the name was inspired by the oceanfront community of Beverly Farms in Massachusetts.
For centuries, the area we now know as Malibu was home to the seafaring Chumash. Near the edge of Malibu Canyon, the Chumash built a settlement known as Humaliwo (where “the surf sounds loudly”). Since the Santa Monica Mountains that ringed the coastland made it difficult to reach, the land was not taken by the Spanish until 1802. That year, the Spanish government named the area Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, a phonetic interpretation of the Chumash name Humaliwo. Over the years this was shortened to the Malibu Rancho, and finally Malibu, the private fiefdom of the legendary May Rindge.
By Hadley Meares | Updated Jan 17, 2020, 3:15pm PST
Photos by Liz Kuball