Defining Los Angeles

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

For these commentaries, and for my blog at LA, I end up monitoring a lot of writing and reporting on Los Angeles.

And one of the things I notice is that the very concept of LA, for all of its presence in the movies and in the mass media, remains a confounding creation.

There’s always somebody getting wrong the essential character and relationships that define this giant metropolitan mash-up. I don’t just mean the tendency of visiting journalists and other observers to approach L.A. as primarily a celebrity and show business town. That’s still reliably a sign that someone is going to get it wrong. But it seems that, increasingly, the bigger cultural and political geography is just too complex for easy digestion.

The 88 separate cities in Los Angeles County are simple enough to distinguish – they have formal boundaries that can be found in the Thomas Guide.

Harder to define are the hundreds of neighborhoods and informal communities in the rest of the county and in Los Angeles itself. If you know exactly where the Wilshire District begins and ends, or Larchmont or Faircrest Heights, you’re ahead of me – and of the officials in City Hall.

Media are getting it wrong in part because of the move away from live, human editors with minds and judgment -- in favor of digital tools. Google maps, for all of their glories, bungle a bunch of LA names and locations – and also like to represent big, amorphous places with a single push pins.

That’s one of the reasons why media coverage of last year’s Metrolink train tragedy repeatedly erred in placing Chatsworth 25 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

No – Chatsworth is in LA. And probably 40 miles by car from the far end of Los Angeles city in San Pedro.

You might think the LA Times would have figured this all out through the years, but the paper has always struggled with how to accurately define the communities it covers.

When I was a reporter and editor at the Times, I remember committees came up with maps that outlined the unofficial communities. They were mostly ignored, and are disregarded even more now that the paper’s staff is thinner and less seasoned in the complexities of L.A. Some parts of the paper have begun referring to Silver Lake and Echo Park as The Eastside, picking up on usage favored by bloggers and newer residents.

But the reference would be a complete gaffe to many other residents who think of the Eastside as east of the Los Angeles River – as the paper’s own style guides say, as a copy editor recently told me.

Just this week, the Times came in for some new blogosphere criticism for misplacing the Pico-Union and Westlake districts. Brady Westwater, the downtown activist and self-styled L.A. historian who called the Times on its error, complained that the paper too often mislabels the city’s neighborhoods.

To their credit, the editors plan to do something about it. They’ve set in motion a project to computerize a database of neighborhoods and try to agree on the boundaries of every one.

That will be tricky. Boundaries of all the various heights and estates and villages sprinkled around Los Angeles are often a matter of local opinion and dispute.

Some community names are wholly figments of real estate agents or homeowner groups and have no historical basis at all. Yes, I’m looking at you Lake Balboa.

But the effort will be worthwhile. Trouble is, the target keeps moving. Just this week, residents in a small suburban corner of Van Nuys requested a trade into Sherman Oaks, thinking that sounds more appealing.

I say let them go. It’s all pretty arbitrary anyway, and at least they didn’t ask to be called Lake Vanowen. Or Maui in the Valley.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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