Introduction to Geography of Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California, the largest city in the state and, since 1982, the second most populous in the United States, after New York City. It is the seat of Los Angeles County. The city lies on the Pacific coast in southern California, roughly 350 miles (560 km) southeast of San Francisco and 100 miles (160 km) northwest of San Diego.

Los Angeles has experienced extremely rapid population growth since the early 1900's. Even greater growth has occurred, especially since World War II, in the area surrounding the city. Today the metropolitan area, stretching some 60 miles (100 km) inland, consists of scores of cities and suburbs linked together by a massive system of high-speed expressways called freeways. This amalgamation of communities spreads over political boundaries and creates an urban region that extends far beyond Los Angeles County into neighboring Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Although frequently criticized for its vast sprawl, traffic congestion, smog, and so-called tinsel and glitter, Los Angeles is an impressive and dynamic city. Among its many assets are a warm, sunny climate, nearby beaches and mountains, and cultural and educational institutions that rank among the best in the nation. Los Angeles is also a leading center of industry, commerce, transportation, and entertainment.

Los Angeles and the adjoining city of Long Beach form the core of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area, as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Within the area, which encompasses all of Los Angeles County, are roughly 9,520,000 inhabitants—almost 3,700,000 within Los Angeles and some 5,820,000 in the rest of the county.

General Plan

Los Angeles occupies part of a mountainrimmed lowland fronting on the Pacific Ocean. It also lies in an earthquake zone near the San Andreas Fault, which cuts across much of California. The city covers an area of 464 square miles (1,202 km2)—one of the largest municipal areas in the nation.

Much of Los Angeles, primarily the older part, occupies level to rolling land south and east of the Santa Monica Mountains, a coastal range rising almost 2,000 feet (610 m) within Los Angeles. Immediately north of this range, and flanked by the Santa Susana, San Gabriel, and Verdugo Mountains, is the San Fernando Valley, an integral part of the city. Elevations in the San Gabriel Mountains reach slightly more than 5,000 feet (1,500 m) within the city and more than 10,000 feet (3,000 m) nearby.

Los Angeles extends more than 25 miles (40 km) inland and, including the city's long southerly arm, some 50 miles (80 km) north-south.


Downtown Los Angeles lies about 15 miles (24 km) inland in the vicinity of the Civic Center, site of the city hall and other government buildings. For many years it lacked the high-rise structures common in many major American cities. The low profile was due mainly to a ban on tall buildings (because of the danger of earthquakes), which was not lifted until the early 1960's. In the 1970's downtown Los Angeles underwent redevelopment and today has an impressive skyline.

Freeways and Streets

The Los Angeles mass-transit system is generally inadequate and the city is heavily dependent on private automobiles. More than a dozen freeways crisscross the city and interconnect. Many of them converge near the downtown area; several bypass it.

A system of roughly north-south and east-west boulevards and thoroughfares supplements the freeways. Among the best known of these are Hollywood, Santa Monica, Sunset, and Wilshire boulevards. Other streets, especially secondary ones, form highly irregular patterns. In hilly and mountainous areas they are generally winding. Elsewhere they are laid out in rectangular sections aligned in many directions.

Sections and Suburbs

Within Los Angeles are a number of distinct sections with names of their own. Some of them—such as Canoga Park, Encino, Hollywood, North Hollywood, San Pedro, Van Nuys, and Wilmington—are often considered separate communities. Other sections that are integral parts of Los Angeles include Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, Hyde Park, Pacific Palisades, Venice, West Los Angeles, and Watts. Three of the most luxurious residential sections are Bel Air, Westwood Village, and Brentwood Park.

A number of separate cities have been completely surrounded by Los Angeles in the course of its rapid expansion. Among them are Beverly Hills, Culver City, Santa Monica, and San Fernando. In addition to Long Beach, large cities that border on Los Angeles include Alhambra, Burbank, Carson, Compton, Glendale, Inglewood, Pasadena, and Torrance. Also within the metropolitan area are Downey, East Los Angeles (unincorporated), El Monte, Lakewood, Nor-walk, Pomona, West Covina, and Whittier.


Residents of Los Angeles are called Angelenos. Slightly less than one-half of them are white; slightly more than one-tenth are black; one-tenth are Asians.

People of Hispanic origin account for about 46 per cent of the population. Mexicans, or Chicanos, are the most numerous Hispanic group. They live mainly in the East Los Angeles area and form the largest Mexican community in the United States. The main concentration of blacks is in south-central Los Angeles, especially in Watts.

Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Koreans are the chief Asian ethnic groups. The Japanese and Chinese communities, near the downtown area, are known as Little Tokyo and Chinatown. Only Honolulu has a greater Japanese population in the United States. Many refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos live in Los Angeles.


Los Angeles is the nation's second greatest industrial and commercial center, after New York City.


are the leading source of employment in Los Angeles. Health, legal, and financial services are especially important. Also significant are services associated with the entertainment industry and those associated with tourism.


in Los Angeles is diverse. Of greatest importance is the aerospace industry, which includes the manufacturing of commercial and military aircraft and various space systems. In the aerospace industry, including research and development, the Los Angeles area is a national leader. Also significant are the assembly of automobiles and other vehicles and the making of tires. The electronics industry employs many people and has undergone enormous growth. Much of it is linked to national defense and space exploration.

Industries making machinery and fabricated-metal products are well developed. The petroleum industry, based partly on oil fields in and around Los Angeles, includes large-scale refining and the production of petrochemicals. A related activity is the manufacturing of oil-field equipment.

The food-processing and clothing industries are also important. Los Angeles sportswear and fashion clothing have a large national market. Other major industries include printing and publishing and the making of furniture, plastics, and clay and glass products.

Motion Pictures and Television

Los Angeles is probably best known for its movie and television industries. Hollywood is the traditional motion picture capital, although the industry is primarily centered in other sections and suburbs, such as Culver City, Burbank, and Universal City.

Three of the nation's four major television systems (ABC, Fox, and CBS) have network studios in Hollywood; the other (NBC) has its West Coast studios in nearby Burbank. There are also numerous other television studios in Los Angeles. Together, they produce many of the taped and filmed programs seen nationally.


Los Angeles is a major center for trade with nations of the Pacific and Far East. It is also the second largest wholesale and retail market in the nation. Most of the retail volume comes from stores in large shopping malls. With several of the nation's largest commercial banks, numerous foreign banks, and a Federal Reserve branch bank, Los Angeles is the leading financial center on the West Coast. Also in Los Angeles are a branch of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange and the headquarters of several large insurance and petroleum companies.


Los Angeles is one of the nation's major transportation hubs. It is served by several trunk railways, hundreds of trucking lines, and numerous arterial roads, including five Interstate highways. Los Angeles has a subway line and a commuter railway that links the city with Long Beach. Los Angeles International Airport, which handles millions of passengers each year on domestic and foreign flights, is one of the largest and busiest airports in the nation. Greater Los Angeles is also served by an international airport at Ontario and by the Long Beach, Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena, and Orange County airports, all of which have scheduled flights.

The Port of Los Angeles, on San Pedro Bay at the southern tip of the city, is one of the largest ports on the west coast in terms of tonnage handled. It lies adjacent to the port at Long Beach.

Other Industries

The tourist industry is an important part of the Los Angeles area's economy, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Conventions bring in additional revenue. Also significant is the fishing industry, centered in the port area at San Pedro. Much of the catch is tuna.

Culture and Education

Performing Arts

The Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, completed in 1967, is Los Angeles's chief center for music, drama, and dance. It is located near the Civic Center, and consists of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theater, and the Mark Taper Forum. The Pavilion is the home of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. The home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra is the Walt Disney Concert Hall. A series of open-air concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic is held each summer in the Hollywood Bowl. The city has many other sites for the performing arts, including the Henry Fonda, Pantages, Kodak, and Wilshire theaters.


Many museums are located in or near Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on Wilshire Boulevard, consists of five structures built around a reflecting pool. It houses one of the largest art collections in the United States. Also outstanding are the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Malibu, and the Los Angeles Children's Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. In nearby San Marino is the small but renowned art collection of the Henry E. Huntington Library. Southwest Museum specializes in the cultures of American Indians. There is a notable display of art reproductions and stained glass in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale.

Extremely varied exhibits are found in the California Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park. Adjacent to it and equally diverse is the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The George C. Page La Brea Discoveries Museum, a branch of the county museum, contains the fossil remains of prehistoric animals found in the La Brea Tar Pits.

Universities and Colleges

Two major universities are located in Los Angeles: the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), west of Beverly Hills, and the University of Southern California (USC), south of the downtown area. Both have extensive campuses, large enrollments, and excellent facilities. The Irvine and Riverside branches of the University of California are also in the Los Angeles area. In nearby Pasadena is the highly regarded California Institute of Technology (Caltech). California State University at Los Angeles and California State University at Northridge are two of the newest and largest schools in the area.

Colleges and universities with smaller enrollments include Loyola Marymount University, Mount St. Mary's College, Occidental College, West Coast University, and Pepperdine University. There are also specialized schools and junior colleges.


The Los Angeles Public Library serves city residents through its main building downtown and numerous branches. The entire metropolitan area is served by the Los Angeles County Public Library System, consisting of five regional headquarters and 90 branches. There are also extensive library facilities at several of the institutions of higher learning. The Huntington Library, with thousands of rare books, including a Gutenberg Bible, is primarily a research library.

Interesting Places

The Los Angeles area has a great variety of places for entertainment, sight-seeing, and recreation. Many of them are within the city; virtually all are within 25 miles (40 km) of the downtown area.

Because of its association with motion pictures and television, Hollywood is of great interest to tourists. Sunset Strip, consisting of some 20 blocks and a plaza on Sunset Boulevard, is a center for restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and night life. At Mann's Chinese Theater, on Hollywood Boulevard, are footprints and other imprints made in concrete by Hollywood stars. The homes of many stars, both past and present, may be seen in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Live television shows are popular attractions at the network studios. Tours are available through the large Universal Studios, in Universal City, where motion pictures and television films are made.

Disneyland, in Anaheim, and Six Flags Magic Mountain, in Valencia, are major amusement parks. In the southeastern suburb of Buena Park is Knott's Berry Farm, with a re-creation of a gold-mining town and various other attractions. Docked in Long Beach is the retired luxury liner Queen Mary, now a floating hotel and convention center. Watts Towers (also called Simon Rodia Towers) consist of eight decorated spires built in Watts by Simon Rodia during a period of 30 years. Other attractions include Farmers Market, Will Rogers' home, and Mount Wilson Observatory.

Parks and Gardens

Griffith Park, consisting of more than 4,100 acres (1,660 hectares) of hilly land, is one of the largest city parks in the nation. Here are the Los Angeles Zoo; Griffith Observatory and Planetarium; Travel Town, a transportation museum; and the Greek Theatre, a performing-arts center. Among the park's recreational facilities are golf courses, picnic grounds, bridle paths, tennis courts, and baseball fields. Other large parks include Elysian Park, Arroyo Seco Park, and Hansen Dam Park.

Outstanding botanical gardens are found in or near Los Angeles. They include the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum, in Arcadia; Descanso Gardens, in La Canada; the sunken rose gardens in Exposition Park; the UCLA Botanic Garden; and the South Coast Botanic Garden, in Palos Verdes Peninsula.


In addition to those of the city parks, other kinds of outdoor recreational facilities are available in the Los Angeles area. Beaches along the coast, such as those at Malibu, Santa Monica, and Manhattan Beach, afford excellent swimming and surfing. The coast also offers many opportunities for fishing, boating, and yachting. Skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts are drawn to the high mountains. Some 20 miles (32 km) away is Santa Catalina Island, a popular year-round resort.

Historical Places

Just north of the Civic Center is the founding site and old Spanish part of the city. It is designated as a state historical monument and called El Pueblo de Los Angeles. It centers around an old Spanish plaza and contains restored buildings dating back to the early 1800's. Among the chief attractions are Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church, or Plaza Church; Olvera Street, with its markets; and Avila Adobe (1818), the oldest house in Los Angeles. Even older are two missions: San Fernando Rey de España (1797), in the San Fernando Valley, and San Gabriel Arcángel (1771), in suburban San Gabriel.


Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the adjacent Sports Arena, in Exposition Park, are the sites of numerous sports events. The Coliseum is the home field of the University of Southern California football team. Also held here are collegiate basketball games and special events, such as ice shows and rodeos. The UCLA football team plays its home games in the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena. Dodger Stadium, in Elysian Park, is the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. Angels Stadium, in Anaheim, is the home of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team. The Mighty Ducks (hockey) also play in Anaheim, at the Anaheim Arena. The Los Angeles Lakers (basketball), the Los Angeles Clippers (basketball), and the Kings (hockey) play in Staples Arena, near downtown Los Angeles. A major annual event is the Rose Bowl parade and football game, held on New Year's Day.

Thoroughbred racing is featured at three major suburban tracks: Hollywood Park, in Inglewood; Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia; and Los Alamitos Race Course, in Los Alamitos.


In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá led a party of Spanish explorers and missionaries to an Indian village near present-day Los Angeles. Two years later Franciscan monks founded a mission at nearby San Gabriel. Los Angeles itself was founded in 1781 by Felipe de Neve, a Spanish colonial governor. During its early years under Spanish and Mexican rule, it was a cattle-raising center. As late as 1800, there were only 70 families in the settlement.

The first United States ship to put in at San Pedro, port of Los Angeles, was the Leila Byrd, in 1805. The captain, William Shaler, brought back such enthusiastic reports that other ships soon arrived to carry on trade. The first English-speaking settler, Joseph (José) Chapman, a New Englander and former privateer, arrived in 1818. He later supervised the construction of Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church (completed in 1822). Mexican rule, which followed a rebellion against the Spaniards in 1821, brought no important changes.


The city fell to United States troops in 1846 during the Mexican War. It was retaken by the Mexicans, but in January, 1847, was again occupied by United States forces. It was incorporated in 1850. By 1854, Los Angeles had gained a reputation for crime and violence, and became infamous for “a murder a day.” After 19 Chinese were killed by a mob in 1871, a reform movement was established.

The Southern Pacific Railroad reached Los Angeles in 1876, and the Santa Fe came 11 years later. There followed a railway price war to attract newcomers from the Midwest, and from 1886 to 1888 the population jumped from 12,000 to more than 60,000. The real-estate boom that resulted soon collapsed, and thousands left the city. By 1890 the population had dropped to 50,000, but it soon began to rise again due to a civic campaign to attract new residents.


The discovery of oil in 1892 proved of only temporary benefit to the city, for most of the 1,400 wells that were drilled were soon depleted. It was not until new oil fields were discovered near Long Beach in 1921 that petroleum production and refining became a major industry in southern California. The growth of the citrus fruit industry paralleled the development of oil production. The improvement of San Pedro harbor, the opening of the Panama Canal, and the establishment of the motion-picture industry all furthered the city's growth from 1910 to 1920.

In the period from 1930 to 1940, Los Angeles marked the 150th anniversary of the city's founding, played host to the 1932 Olympic Games, and erected a number of impressive public buildings. Hoover Dam (then called Boulder Dam) began to provide electricity for the city, and the Colorado aqueduct greatly increased the water supply.

World War II and After

During World War II, war production helped establish the city as the nation's greatest aircraft manufacturing center and a leading industrial center. The decade from 1950 to 1960 was marked by continued industrial and civic development, and by expansion of the few miles of freeways into a network of more than 300 miles (480 km). One result of urban development was smog that often hung over the city for days.

In August, 1965, a violent race riot broke out in Watts, a black neighborhood. The rioting lasted for six days; more than 30 persons were killed and more than 1,000 injured. The National Guard was sent in to restore order. Efforts later were made to improve economic conditions in Watts.

Heavy rains in 1969 caused flooding and mud slides that destroyed many canyon and hillside homes in the area. In 1970 a severe brush fire swept through the outskirts of the city, causing widespread damage. A major earthquake rocked the area in 1971.

During the 1970's and 1980's, many immigrants from Asia and Central America settled in Los Angeles. In 1980, after a legal battle that lasted 17 years, mandatory school busing for the purpose of racial desegregation was ordered for Los Angeles by the California courts. However, the program was halted in 1981, following approval of a statewide referendum banning busing.

In 1992, the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers on charges of beating a black motorist led to two days of rioting, looting, and arson, mainly in the poor, black sections of the city. In 1994 a major earthquake struck Los Angeles, killing some 50 persons and causing 13 to 20 billion dollars in damage.


Los Angeles has been the second largest city in the United States, after New York City, since 1982. It became California's largest city in 1920, overtaking San Francisco, which had long been the West Coast's largest.