A Brief History of the Los Angeles Plaza, the City's Misplaced Heart

Modern Los Angeles is a city without a center. Nodes of power, prestige, and commerce dot the landscape, even if the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill mischievously invite the viewer to locate the city's center there. In its early years, however, Los Angeles was built around a well-defined center, the Plaza, which remained its political, social, and commercial heart even as it grew from a Spanish colonial outpost into a booming Yankee city.

The Plaza preceded the city. It was prescribed in detail by the very law that authorized thefounding of Los Angeles as Spanish California's second civilian pueblo: Governor Felipe de Neve's Reglamento, written in 1779 and ratified by the Spanish king in 1781. This list of regulations, which represents L.A.'s earliest urban planning document, directed the pueblo's founding colonists to build their houses around a rectangular plaza of 200 by 300 feet, its corners aligned with the cardinal directions of the compass.

Neve's order did not represent an innovation; the concept of a plaza at the center of Spanish colonials settlements dates back to the 1542 Laws of the Indies. Some scholars even suggest that the Spanish inherited the idea from the grand public square in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán. Thus, when los pobladores arrived in the broad river valley just south of the Arroyo Seco's confluence with the Los Angeles River (then known as the Porciuncula) in the summer months of 1781, the plaza they constructed was already a legacy of past imperial dominion.

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