Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (2024)

There was supposedly a jingle that helped people to remember the sequence of streets downtown: "From Main we Spring to Broadway,then over the Hill to Olive! Wouldn't it be Grand if we could Hope topick a Flower that grows on Figueroa?"

All these streets were drawn on the first American map ofLos Angeles in 1849. Their original English names have stuck - with threeexceptions: Broadway was originally Fort; Grand was changed from Charity;and at first Figueroa was Grasshopper and then Pearl.

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (1)

The story of today's Figueroa Street has always been complex and deserves an in-depth explanation. Not long after its predecessor, Grasshopper Street, was established on the survey, an "original" Figueroa Street was planned a little further west.Figueroa fits in a little-known category as one of the first new streetsestablished in 1855. Today, the historic, original segment exists betweenPico Boulevard and Exposition Boulevard. Much of the research in this post is owed to the incredible sleuthing within map and other archival collections by librarian-historian Neal Harlow reflected in his 1976 book, Maps and Surveys of the Pueblo Lands of Los Angeles.

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (2)
Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, NHMLAC

Who WasJosé Figueroa?

The street named for José Secundino Figueroa y Parracorrelates to the Spanish, Mexican and indigenous history in California.Figueroa was Spanish and Native and distinguished in his military rolein the war to gain Mexican independence from Spain. He served as Governor of Alta Californiabeginning in 1833 at the time when the Mexican government set about to secularize the Franciscan mission system. He died in office in 1835, shortly after he authored the first full-length book ever published in California,Manifiesto a la Republica Mejicana. Aside from being a historical first, the book is a record of his efforts to regulate the allocation of land in the interests of Native Americans, particularly amidst new colonizing groups who arrived in 1834.

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (3)
Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research

Interestingly, historic Figueroa Street leads down to where it first ended, at today's Exposition Park, where at the Natural History Museum one of only a handful of known surviving copies of the Manifiesto is preserved.

An American City in Need of Selling Land

Figueroa Street is also significant because of its direct link to the City's earliest ambitions to grow the city in both its acreage and operational revenue, and this blog post emphasizes this specific linkage.

The origin story of the street began when the Los Angelesmunicipality, newly incorporated in April, 1850, strategized to raise revenue byselling city lots. Preparation began inthe summer of 1849 by securing a very first American survey, the Plan de laciudad de Los Angeles, commonly known as the Ord Survey, paid with private moneylent by councilman John Temple, who arrived when Los Angeles was a Mexican pueblo. The survey concentrated on all the cultivatedlands within the four square leagues allotted in the original Spanish pueblo.

In the fall of 1850 a proposal was made to hold a publicauction to sell town lots and agricultural tracts. The sale took place on November 7th but fellshort of the goal. John Temple was onlyable to recoup about 80% of his loan.

Then in August, 1852, a “donation system” or a “Free LandOrdinance” allowed a person to petition the mayor for desired land whereby fora $10 fee a landholder was given one year to improve the land before receivingtitle. Eight certificates were issuedand many more the following year on 35-acre lots outside of the city limits,because the Common Council had set its sight on claiming not four but sixteen squareleagues of municipal land.

In May, 1854, the Ordinance was repealed due to the lack ofa complete survey for the entire 35-acre lots. A year earlier Henry Hanco*ck,assisted by George Hansen, submitted a proposal to remedy the lack of asurvey. The proposal included a sketchmap of the donation lots. (This extantmap from April, 1853, housed in the Los Angeles City Archives represents theearliest cartographic record for the donation system.)

In 1855 Hansen made a plat of the liberal boundaries of LosAngeles that extended to the neighboring ranchos. (The plat map did not survive, and itsexistence is based on a composite map containing an 1871 affidavit by Hansen –see below). To underscore the point, theearly maps from 1853 and 1855 extended beyond the original four square leagues definedin the original Spanish pueblo.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the U.S. Warwith Mexico stipulated all claimants to land (individuals and entities) toprovide proof before the U.S. Land Commission.The first Common Council of Los Angeles boldly sought title to landtotaling sixteen square leagues. TheCommission regularly heard California claims in San Francisco, but they held asession in Los Angeles during the fall of 1852, and in that October the Citypresented its petition.

Confident that they would eventually prevail, the City proceededwith the issuance of 35-acre donation lots.But the City did not succeed, and on February 5, 1856, the LandCommission confirmed the original four square leagues. With the setback, Hansen’s plat map from twoyears earlier became reformed in 1857 to reflect the confirmed city limits. (The 1857 map did not survive, and itsexistence is based on a composite map containing an 1871 affidavit by Hansen –see below).

The Naming of Figueroa Street

Figueroa Street was conceived on the survey maps producedafter the Ord Survey and created by Hanco*ck and Hansen along with work contributedby Adolphus Waldemar and William Moore in the 1850s and into the 1860s and1870s. The maps first projected the wishful, expandedboundaries but then reigned in within the reduced, confirmed limits. Detailed on those maps of the 1850s andrepeated in the 1860s and 1870s were streets for American presidents and a selectgroup of five Mexican-era governors – José María Echeandía, José Figueroa, JuanBautista Alvarado, Manuel Micheltorena, and Pío de Jesús Pico.

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (4)
[Map of Confirmed Limits of Los Angeles, by George Hansen, ca. 1860-1870]
(Courtesy Seaver Center GC-1310-2766)

Why is Figueroa Street the longest street in the city? It appeared on early maps as the longeststreet. Whether detailed on a mapshowing the ambitious sixteen square leagues or inside the four squareleagues, Figueroa Street was drawn as the lengthiest and most centrallyplaced. Its prominence surpassed that ofthe streets for the other four Mexican governors as well as the original sevenstreets for American presidents.

The tidy order of the streets for the presidents is clearlyseen, but a close study of the placement of Echandia (current spelling),Figueroa, Alvarado and Micheltorena Streets reveal that they are in thechronological order of each governor’s time in office.[1] The street of the final governor from theMexican period, Pío Pico, was placed perpendicular to the others and precededthe American presidents.

Historical maps indicate that the streets for the presidentsand governors first appeared in 1855.Coincidentally, or not, an anonymous 1855 English translation was released in San Francisco of the first full-length book published inCalifornia 20 years earlier by Governor Figueroa. Was this the impetus for the streetnaming? The question remains unanswered,but the surveyor and Austrian national, George Hansen, had ties to SanFrancisco, and he was characterized as erudite and a scholar and philosopher.

As early as 1853, Santa Barbara city maps included the namesof Spanish and Mexican governors:Arellaga, Figueroa, Micheltorena, Solá, and Victoria. They do not run in any particular order, butthe early naming raises a question whether this mapping activity may haveinfluenced the work of Los Angeles surveyors in 1855.[2] See more below on the streets history of Santa Barbara.

City Mapping Activities in 1871

Two significant map events occurred in 1871. The City purchaseda map from George Hansen containing a detailed and notarized affidavit datedJanuary, 1871. The map providedcirc*mstances as to why there were duplicate block numbers north of Pico aswell as south of Pico, but the composite map helps explain key surveying activitiesin Los Angeles from 1849, 1855 and 1857.[3] Today this important map is housed at the LosAngeles City Archives, and it provides the basis for the historical origin ofFigueroa Street.

In late October of the same year, the City decided tocontract surveyor Lothar Seebold to produce two copies of the Ord Survey. When the copies were completed in 1872, theoriginal Survey was most likely discarded.

Public Works Activities in 1876

In all the years since Los Angeles was incorporated and evenadmitted as a city in the Union, the City continued to await theofficial Land Patent from the U.S. Land Office until the award for the foursquare leagues came in 1875. (The25-year wait was not unusual – claimants including individuals waited anaverage of 17 years, and there were instances of claims finalized after 35 to40 years.) In the case of the City ofLos Angeles, it actually secured an earlier patent of 1866 that went back intolitigation – and was upheld in January, 1882!

A lot of attention was paid to Pearl and Figueroa Streets in1876. Recorded for January 27, 1876 werethe following: 1) grade of Pearl Streetfrom Fifth Street to Pico Street; 2) defining lines of Figueroa Street fromWashington to Pico; 3) continuation of Pearl Street from Twelfth to South lineof Pico Street. Also earlier, on March18, 1875, Figueroa Street was graded along the “street known as Figueroa Street.”[4]

It appears that the entire length of (original) Figueroa Street betweenBaxter and Exposition Boulevard (present day name) was re-established again asFigueroa Street in 1876 maybe for administrative reasons.[5]

How Was Figueroa Street Used in the 19th Century?

Real life eventually did not measure up to the cartographicvision for the streets. A portion ofthe original Figueroa Street (above Pico) was built over; while today Figueroa remains veryprominent among the five streets for the governors, Echandia is exceptionallyminor; streets for the presidents were not realized beyond Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

But how was the original Figueroa Street actually regardedby the residents? The two earliestdirectories that this author could find to shed some light are dated 1875: Southern California Directory and the LosAngeles City Directory.

Above Pico Street

A small detail was found in pioneer Leonard J. Rose’sdescription of public transportation development in the city after 1874: when the first streetcar line ran from PicoHouse down Main to junction at Spring, then to First, then west to Fort(Broadway), south to Sixth, then west to the car barns on Figueroa.[6]

Notably absent in the 1875 directories are residentialaddresses of those living on (original) Figueroa Street anywhere above PicoStreet. For substantiation, newspaperarticles in the early 1890s reported the confusion that Figueroa Street wasdisregarded and homes and structures built through where the street shouldbe. Some demanded that the street berecognized fearing their property would be boxed in if the street becamevacated.[7]

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (5)

By 1894 two contested stretches (between 6th and 9thstreets; between 10th and Pico streets) were vacated. In 1897, a longer segment leading northward from6th Street up to Bellevue was vacated.But Bellevue through Lilac Terrace was vacated earlier in 1886. Lilac Terrace up to Baxter was vacated in1897. An overlooked segment of(original) Figueroa between 9th and 10th streets continues today as an alleynamed Cottage Place. The well-known HotelFigueroa has a rear door exiting onto Cottage Place.

Therefore the northern portion of (original) Figueroa Streetabove Pico Street withered away, and one street to the east, Pearl Street (firstestablished by the Ord Survey as Calle de las Chapules or Grasshopper) took on the name,Figueroa, in 1897.

Below Pico Street

While the original Figueroa Street running north of Pico didnot survive, the segment south of Pico thrived (and still exists today). The 1875 Los Angeles City Directory show thatthe vicinity of Figueroa intersecting with Pico, Washington, Adams andJefferson was dotted with 26 residences.The residents were predominantly skilled: several lawyers, a real estate broker, a staircasebuilder, carpenters, nurserymen, a Superintendent of Mines, bookkeeper, a clerk,several farmers and a couple of laborers.

A prominent person listed in 1875 was Horace Bell, who livedon the original leg of Figueroa just below Pico. He probably settled here early following hisreturn from the Civil War. His wifeGeorgia was described as the first American woman to reside south of 8th Streetand west of Grand Avenue.

Prior to 1875, lots were held by many individuals, but it isunknown if anyone actually lived on a lot and made improvements. Other early landholders include surveyors HenryHanco*ck and William Moore both of whom received lots as partial payment intheir contracts surveying for the City.

Some of the lots below Pico may have been procured byindividuals during a period between 1852 and 1854 when the donation system wasavailable.

Lots were auctioned “at the end of the 50’s and in the 60’sfor $2.50 to $7.50 an acre to overcome financial stringency.”[8] AttorneyCameron E. Thom (who served as City Mayor inthe 1880s) invested in two lots bound by Figueroa, Pico, Grand and Washingtonfor the price of $153 in 1855.

In his memoir Harris Newmark recalled his friend ColonelJohn O. Wheeler forgot about an investment of 50 to 60 acres near Figueroa andAdams until the active real estate boom of the mid-1880s.[9]

An early mention of an investment on south Figueroa is from aLos Angeles Star newspaper notice of April 27, 1867, informing that Joseph Shawhas title to land fronting Washington and Figueroa streets, and bounded byproperty owned by other individuals, Flashner and Hass.

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (6)
From the Los Angeles Star newspaper (Huge thanks to M. Tapio-Kines for bringing attention this article)

Figueroa Street Naming in Other Cities

The Southern California Directory of 1875 reveals the existenceof Figueroa streets in San Buenaventura (Ventura) and Santa Barbara, and thosestreets still remain today.

Additionally historic Figueroa Street in Ventura turns intoa pedestrian pathway called Figueroa Street Mall that leads to Mission SanBuenaventura.

As stated earlier, a total of five street names forgovernors were established as early as 1853 in Santa Barbara. Naming for Governor Figueroa along withMexican governors, Micheltorena and Victoria, and Spanish governor de Solá, werelisted in the 1875 directory (while Arellaga was not found in any 1875 entries). Carrillo Street was contemporaneously named in the 1850s forthe local Judge Joaquin Carrillo and not for Governor Carlos Antonio Carrillo.

José Figueroa's eponymous fixture in Santa Barbara is particularlysignificant since the Mission Santa Barbara is his resting place.

Figueroa Street is a Los Angeles Landmark

Last December a group of historians responded to a proposal for renaming a three-mile length of the street to Kobe Bryant Boulevard, between Olympic and Exposition Boulevards. The Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece authored by those leading the charge - Darryl Holter, William Estrada and John Echeveste.[10] As of this writing, the proposal has not been heard by the City Council.

Figueroa Street: A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (7)
Published December 6, 2020 (Image from blogger's collection)

Previous Los Angeles Revisited posts dedicated to Figueroa Street:

The Hotel Figueroa and Figueroa Street Name Origins

Before the Convention Center, the Staples Center and LA Live and Football

The Pulchritude of Pearl Street

[1]A map housed in the Los Angeles City Archives that was purchased in 1871 showsa naming pattern for Mexican governors that may have included a 6thgovernor, Pablo Vicente de Solá, who was the last Spanish governor of Alta California. For the purposes of this paper, the mentionof the streets for the governors will be kept to five: Echeandía, Figueroa,Alvarado, Micheltorena and Pico.

[2]Salisbury Haley conducted the first survey for Santa Barbara in 1851. As of this writing it is not known whetherthe streets for the governors took shape then, or perhaps when VitusWackenreuder, County Surveyor, prepared another map in January, 1853.

[3]Neal Harlow, Maps and Surveys of thePueblo Lands of Los Angeles. LosAngeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1976, pp.72-75.

[4]Wm. M. Caswell, Revised Charter andCompiled Ordinances and Resolutions of the City of Los Angeles. Los Angeles:Evening Express Steam Printing Establishment, 1878.

[5]Bernice Kimball, Street Names of LosAngeles. Los Angeles: Bureau ofEngineering, 1988.

[6]L.J. Rose, Jr., L.J. Rose of Sunny Slope1827-1899, San Marino: TheHuntington Library, 1959, pp. 95-96.

[8] [Atranslation of Los Angeles, Origin, Life and Set-Up of the Two-Million City inSouthern California by Anton Wagner, index to page 83], ca. 1937, MSS-577,Seaver Center for Western History Research, NHMLAC.

[9]Harris Newmark, Sixty Years in SouthernCalifornia 1853-1913. Boston and NewYork: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1930, pp. 379-380.

[10]Darryl Holter, William Estrada and John Echeveste, “Honoring Yesterday’sHeroes,” Los Angeles Times, December6, 2020, p. A19.

Figueroa Street:  A Thoroughfare Named in the 1850s, Los Angeles, Calif. (2024)


What is the history of Figueroa Street in Los Angeles? ›

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Updated on March 15, 2020. The Spanish surname Figueroa is a habitational name from any one of several small towns in Galicia, Spain named from a derivative of figueira, meaning "fig tree." Figueroa is the 59th most common Spanish surname.

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(slang, chiefly US) A hom*osexual, usually male. (slang, chiefly US) An area of a city which is commonly known for prostitution.

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Yes, folks, we're talking about prostitution.

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