How Los Angeles Neighborhoods Got Their Names
The divide between the different neighborhoods of Los Angeles can feel like one between cities, and in some cases—like West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Culver City—it literally is. But residents of L.A. really do place stock in the neighborhood they live in, whether it be on the Westside or Eastside, downtown or nestled in the hills.
L.A. is a big place—the Los Angeles Times’ Mapping L.A. project has 272 neighborhoods in the city. Outlining the origin of all their names would be a project worthy of a large research university. In order to make this both manageable and comprehensible, I stuck to the neighborhoods and cities within a few areas of the Times’ map: the Westside, South L.A., Central L.A., Southeast, Eastside, and Northeast L.A. This leaves out the many valleys and mountains and bays that make Los Angeles County so sprawling, but it also hits most of the places you’d think of as L.A. proper. I also didn’t explain all of the many variations on Beverly, Hollywood, and some others, as well as many hyphenates and neighborhoods named after streets.
Apologies in advance to all those excluded. You’re still great.
Artesia was named for the area’s large number of Artesian wells, which are stored pockets of groundwater that sometimes flow to the surface. Because of the wells, Artesia eventually became a major dairy district in the early 1900s.
This land was owned by the family of Harriet Atwater Paramore when it was subdivided in 1912, hence the name.
The legend behind Baldwin Park’s name is a weird one. According to the city’s website, a man named “Lucky” Baldwin wanted to start a town nearby called “Baldwinville.” At the time, Baldwin Park was known as Vineland, and they invited Lucky Baldwin to a town meeting to discuss the idea. As he entered, the over-80-year-old Baldwin fell, but one of the town’s residents caught and saved him. Out of gratitude, he decided not to start Baldwinville, and Vineland took on the name Baldwin Park.
Immortalized by The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the wealthy neighborhood was named by the wife of rancher Alphonso Bell, who founded the community in 1923. She came up with the Italian name of “Bel Air.”
Bell was actually founded by Alphonso Bell’s father, James George Bell, whose family moved there to start a ranch and farm. Their former home, the Bell House, is now a historic landmark.
Bellflower came out of a bit of a controversy. The name Somerset was already taken by a town in Colorado, and the U.S. Post Office rejected the town’s residents’ request for that name in 1909. A few different explanations for the city's eventual name exist, but its website says that the most common one comes from the town’s orchard of Bellefleur apples.
One of the most famous places in the United States, Beverly Hills’ naming shows how random these things can be. Burton E. Green acquired the land in the early 1900s in order to look for oil. Instead, he found water, and he named the city after a farm he loved in Massachusetts.
Boyle Heights was named after Andrew Boyle by his son-in-law, William Workman. Boyle planted vineyards and lived on the land in the mid-to-late 1800s.
The name of Carthay is an Anglicized derivation of J. Harvey McCarthy’s surname, but it has also become more or less indistinguishable from the Carthay Circle Theater, his landmark Hollywood movie house in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is often referred to now as Carthay Circle.
Century City went from being a ranch to a 20th Century Fox backlot before Fox sold it for $50 million to finance the making of Cleopatra. Now a “city within the city” that houses the headquarters of enormous entertainment companies like CAA, the project was so ambitious at the start that the joke around the name, which was derived from the studio’s, became that it would take a century to finish.
Cerritos used to be called “the City of Dairy Valley,” which might be the best name I’ve ever heard for anything. But as the price of land changed, the city shifted its focus from agriculture to development, and the name changed along with it. Cerritos came from the nearby Cerritos College, as well as the 1834 Spanish land grant Rancho Los Cerritos. (Cerritos means “little hills.”)
The city was renamed as such in the 1940s to promote commerce. Makes sense!
Long before N.W.A. repped Compton, Griffith Dickenson Compton made his way to the area in 1867, and the town is named for him.
Cudahy is named after a meatpacker named Michael Cudahy who used the area to raise sheep and hogs in the late 1800s.
One of the major parts of Los Angeles that is actually its own city, Culver City was named after Harry Culver, who founded the city in 1917. His ad campaign of “All Roads Lead To Culver City,” combined with luring Thomas Ince’s studio operations there, helped make Culver City one of the main centers of Hollywood operations.
John Gately Downey has a few different distinctions. Thirty three years old at the time of his election, he remains the youngest man to ever be elected Governor of California, and prior to the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was the only one to have been born outside the United States. An Irishman, Downey founded the town of Downey, which became a common place for Irish immigrants to settle.
Eagle Rock is named for a large rock near the neighborhood that—surprise!—looks like an eagle.
Echo Park’s name is generally chalked up to a few different, possibly apocryphal stories of workers hearing their voices echo off either bluffs around the park or a dam they were building.
An attorney named Andrew Glassell acquired the land that would later become Glassell Park in 1871, and when he and his family began living there, many of the neighborhood’s streets were also named after his relatives.
Green Meadows is notorious for being very different than its name might suggest—no meadows, not green. But it received the name in 2001 from the 8th District Empowerment Congress, which was attempting to connect neighborhoods in South L.A. to their histories by giving them the names formerly possessed by tracts of land in the same areas. (This is true for a number of other South L.A. neighborhoods, which is why they aren’t on this list.)
The man Griffith Park is named after had not just one, but two Griffiths to offer: Colonel Griffith J. Griffith. Griffith started an ostrich farm on the land, and later donated much of it to the city—perhaps an attempt to atone for the 1903 shooting and killing of his wife, for which he spent time in jail.
Hancock Park is named for the Hancock family, specifically G. Allan Hancock, who inherited the land from his father and then developed it for residential use.
You’ve possibly heard of this one? One of the early settlers of Hollywood, Harvey Henderson Wilcox, wanted to name his new land “Figwood,” but he was (wisely) overruled by his wife, who picked up the name Hollywood from a Dutch woman she met on a train. The name was reinforced as it was then used for the main boulevard in town as well as the hotel, which began construction in 1902.
Huntington Park is named for railroad man and collector Henry Huntington, who also lent his name to Huntington Beach and a hotel, library, botanical gardens, and other places throughout L.A.
La Mirada was actually founded by the mapmaker Andrew McNally, who, along with William Rand, formed Rand McNally. McNally was processing olive oil in the area, and the land passed down through his family. Eventually, after becoming famous for the detail of its planning and development, it was incorporated into Los Angeles, and in 1960, voters changed the name to La Mirada, which is Spanish for “the look.”
As a neighborhood, Lincoln Heights has a longer history than most current areas of L.A.—it’s been a suburb of downtown since the late 1800s. It was referred to as East Los Angeles at first, but in 1913, Abraham Lincoln High School was built nearby, and in 1917, the community voted to rename the neighborhood Lincoln Heights.
Los Feliz is named for Rancho Los Feliz, which used to be on the territory that the neighborhood now occupies. But the way you pronounce the name is still up for debate—there’s a schism in Los Angeles over whether to pronounce it according to the Spanish way, “Los Fey-LEASE,” or in a more Anglicized fashion, as “Los FEE-lus.”
Not a bad gift to your wife—the dairyman C.H. Sessions named the acres and creamery he’d obtained after his wife, whose maiden name was Lynne Wood. As the area grew, a railroad station took the name Lynwood as well, and it spread from there.
The area where Malibu now exists used to be occupied by the Chumash tribe, which called it Humaliwo, meaning “the surf sounds loudly.” If you’ve ever been to Malibu, you’ll know that this is an apt name. Eventually, Humaliwo became “Malibu,” as the “hu” isn’t emphasized in the original Native American word.
In 1923, George Sunday, the son of evangelist Billy Sunday, came up with the name Mar Vista, which is Spanish for “sea view,” when he was naming a subdivision in the former neighborhood of Ocean Park Heights. Santa Monica and Venice tried to annex Mar Vista in the following years, but it became incorporated by Los Angeles in 1927.
Strangely, Maywood, like Lynwood, is also named after a woman by the last name of Wood. This one’s first name, as you might expect, was May, and she agreed to allow the real estate corporation she worked for to use her name when they originally divvied up the ranch that was on the property into individual homes.
The name Montebello was provided by hydraulic engineer William Mulholland, who would eventually become the namesake for the famed Mulholland Drive. “Montebello” means “beautiful mountain” in Italian, which also means it could be the name of any neighborhood in southern California.
Norwalk was the idea of the two Sproul brothers. They named the land they purchased in 1869 “Norwalk” after North-walk, a trail that crossed the Anaheim Branch Railroad.
The idea of “Pacific Palisades” is very literal: it comes from the neighborhood’s location right on the Pacific Ocean and the resemblance of the cliffs overlooking the ocean to the Hudson River Palisades in New York. Originally founded as a possible religious commune, the area is now famous for beautiful homes, wealth, and those cliffs.
Originally known as La Ballona, Palms earned its name when contractors rode in in 1886 and planted thousands of palm trees as a way of prettying up the land they were about to sell. The neighborhood was first called “the Palms,” but like Facebook, it would eventually drop the “the.”
One of the more interesting subplots in the development of L.A. was the constant annexation and territorial battles between different neighborhoods and cities within the county. Paramount, which took its name from a major north-south street—and shares it with one of Hollywood’s largest film studios—had to survive the attempts of a number of nearby neighborhoods to absorb it before eventually being incorporated as a city in 1957.
Pico Rivera takes the first word in its name—which is also the name of a large east-west boulevard, as well as included in a number of other neighborhoods—from Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, before it transferred into the hands of the United States following the Mexican-American War.
Playa del Rey
Playa del Rey means “beach of the king” in Spanish, and it came to be the major name for the neighborhood, following earlier uses of "Palisades del Rey" and simply "Del Rey" by the contractors and developers who turned it into a residential area.
Santa Fe Springs
Santa Fe Springs takes its name from the Santa Fe Railway. Santa Fe means “Holy Faith,” and it stems from the former full name of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís.”
Although there are counter-narratives, one of the most common explanations for the name of Santa Monica is that a group of Spanish explorers found some springs while they were traversing the coast. It was either the feast day of St. Monica, or the springs reminded them of the tears that St. Monica cried for her son Augustine, and they named the area Santa Monica.
Silver Lake shares its name with the neighborhood’s reservoir, which, in addition to the hills and architecture, gives the area much of its beauty. Both are named after Herman Silver, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Water commissioners who served as the superintendent of the United States Mint in Colorado and worked with the railroads before ending up in California due to his health.
University Park is the neighborhood in which the University of Southern California is located, along with Mount St. Mary’s College and Hebrew Union College.
Most visitors to Venice will immediately see its network of canals, lined with beautiful homes, and connect the name to the canals of Italy’s Venice. And it’s true that Venice, Los Angeles is named after Venice, Italy, but the name actually preceded the canals. Founded by Abbott Kinney, whose name is now shared with one of the neighborhood’s main streets, Venice was at first called “Venice of America” and was designed as a resort town. Kinney had the canals dug to drain the neighborhood’s marshes as well as to resemble the ones in Italy, but with the advent of the automobile, they fell out of use. The canals weren’t renovated and repaired until 1993, but since then, they’ve become one of the centerpieces of L.A.
According to the Los Angeles Times’ Mapping project, Vernon had a population of only 94 in the 2000 U.S. Census, which gives it one of the lowest population densities in L.A. County. The neighborhood was founded as a primarily industrial area, with a focus on railroads, and the men who founded it named Vernon after a dirt path running through the center.
Owing to the Watts Towers and the Watts Riots in the mid-1960s, the name Watts was originally taken from a developer named Charles H. Watts, who purchased the land that now makes up the neighborhood in order to farm livestock.
The neighborhood of Wilshire is named for the boulevard that runs through it, one of the major roads in Los Angeles. That boulevard is named for the developer Henry Gaylord Wilshire, a socialist who donated part of the land the boulevard now lies on to the city.
Windsor Square sounds like what a mansion in the English countryside might be called, and there’s a reason for that. Developer Robert A. Rowan and his associates intended for homes in the neighborhood to be reminiscent of that setting. Prices for home deeds in the area were set high so as to facilitate the building of large homes by the wealthy, and the area became one of the most upscale in urban Los Angeles.
Corrections have been made for Atwater, Paramount, and Pico Rivera.