How maps connect past, present, and future: A conversation with Metro’s archivist, Claire Kennedy

Did you know that we have an archive and library here at Metro? And that it’s one of the biggest transportation libraries in the country? And that our holdings date all the way back to the 19th century, long before Metro’s time, of course, but when transit throughout Los Angeles was very much alive? If you visit the Metro Transportation Library and Archive, you’ll find all sorts of artifacts – everything from rare bus tokens to streetcar gongs –– yup, those were a thing! –– to fossils dug up in excavations to grand, utopian plans for transportation projects that were never built.  

One of the library’s prized possessions is a 51 x 62-inch map of Los Angeles from the 1920s. Meticulously hand-painted, it’s a snapshot of Los Angeles from an important moment in time –– when automobile culture was exploding, yet transit continued to be the way that most people got around. “It feels distant and very familiar at the same time,” Metro’s archivist, Claire Kennedy, told me. “It’s easy to get lost in it.”  

The map (pre-digitization)

I knew this from first-hand experience, having spent hours tracing the routes of old bus lines and looking for the intersections where I used to live. I wanted to know more about the map’s origins, however, so I sat down with Kennedy to get some answers.   

IM: Tell us the story behind this map. What, exactly, are we looking at?   

CK: This is a map of Los Angeles illustrating the streetcar system and early bus lines of Metro’s predecessors. You can see local routes of LA Railway’s Yellow Cars, the inter-urban routes of Pacific Electric’s Red Cars, the 1.9 mile long “Hollywood subway” (also known as the Belmont Tunnel) and the routes of the first few lines of early bus-based transit.  

IM: When was this map made?  

CK: We’re not entirely sure! We think this map was made in 1927, around the peak of the early streetcar system in the city. The population was booming, and many people were buying and driving automobiles for the first time. Even though there’s no date on the map, we can make an educated guess using some key landmarks. For example, the map illustrates Ascot Speedway near Lincoln Park. This racetrack, in operation from 1924 to 1936, changed its name to the Legion Ascot Speedway in Fall,1928, meaning that the map was created before then. The map also shows the Gilmore Oil Fields … before it became the famous farmer’s market on 3rd Street and Fairfax in 1934. 

IM: And who made it?  

CK: I’m glad you asked! This map was designed by Laura L. Whitlock, a female cartographer dubbed “The official map maker of Los Angeles County” by Sunset magazine in 1918. Like many Angelenos from that era, she was a midwestern transplant. She came to Los Angeles by train from Iowa in 1895. And also like many people moving to California at the time, she took the opportunity to reinvent herself once she got here. She began offering guided tours of natural destinations, and opened up a “tourist headquarters” and hotel bureau for curious travelers. Whitlock then took up mapmaking. We don’t know why, exactly, but given her knowledge of tourism and entrepreneurial spirit, she likely saw it as a natural move.  

Whitlock’s reputation as a skilled mapmaker grew as she made many authoritative maps of Los Angeles transportation over the years. In 1918, Whitlock made history when she battled and won a court case against N. Bowditch Blunt, a plagiarizer who pirated her map and sold it as his own. Her success in court set legal precedent in protecting intellectual property rights for future generations of cartographers.  

IM: What do we learn about Los Angeles through this map?  

CK: I see something new every time I look at this map. The freeways were not yet planned or built. But you’ll see street names that have been around for over a hundred years. Some streets had different names then, like Olympic Boulevard was “10th street” in 1927 (it was later changed in anticipation of the 1932 Olympic Games).  Los Angeles grew, at least initially, around the spokes of the streetcar system. It has been argued that the city’s current patterns of population density and commercial development are still clustered around the old streetcar routes. Whitlock’s map makes that point –– even though the streetcars are gone, the city still seems to retain its population and commercial density around the defunct streetcar routes.  We can see where the city was growing, where people at the time were living, and where they were going.  

The Gilmore Oil Field (pre farmers market)

IM: How does this map enhance our understanding of the history of transportation?  

CK:  This map shows us an interesting moment in the history of transportation in our city, when early rail and bus service coexisted. At the time, Los Angeles had the largest streetcar system in the world. The Yellow Cars provided local transit, while the Red Cars provided intercity long-distance transportation. The bus system, first launched in 1923, was intended to provide connections between the two rail systems. Eventually, the bus lines would replace the streetcar system completely. But not in this map.  

I’m struck by just how dense the streetcar network was, especially in South LA, an area that’s historically been underserved. Interestingly, when the bus service did replace the dense network of Red and Yellow Cars in South LA, the bus routes that superseded them were limited and not as ubiquitous. (Read one personal account of that here.)  When the McCone Commission studied the underlying causes of the Watts Riots in 1965, one of the (many) root causes they identified was lack of access to efficient public transportation. This limited job opportunities to transit dependent people. 

IM: Why is it so important to preserve this map?  

CK: This map, as a historical artifact, gives us a window into the past. We can look at it and imagine the mapmaker at her table with ink and a ruler. We can think of the transit riders and operators of the time and what they saw on their daily commutes. We can also put ourselves in the place of the tourist of the 1920s, holding their faces close to the map tracing the inked and painted shapes with their eyes and fingers to locate themselves in this unfamiliar city.  

But it’s not just the past that I see in this map. I see glimpses of the present and future as well. Like we see in this map, we now live in a city with both rail and bus service. The lost rail lines of the past helped us imagine LA’s transportation future. Even though all the streetcars were gone by 1963, the former Pacific Electric corridors were essential in the re-development of light rail networks in Los Angeles (as we can see in this document from our archive). Looking forward, the dense network of electric rail-based transit systems in 1927 offers something of an inspiration to us as we continue to build efficient light rail system in Los Angeles.  

IM: You worked with the Getty Research Institute to digitize this map. Tell us about this collaboration! 

We worked with Todd Swanson, Peter Dueker and Michael Smith in Getty Digital Imaging at the J. Paul Trust (aka Getty) to scan the map. The main reason was for preservation purposes, so that we can display and share facsimiles and keep the original safe. Getty has some of the world’s most advanced conservation and preservation technology. While the map was on site, the team asked permission to create a special 3D scan of it using advanced technology. They used a structured light scanner to record the spatial geometry of the map’s surface with submillimeter point accuracy of 0.2mm. Then they applied the high resolution 2D image tiles in combination with the structured light scan to create the final product, a 3D model with a highly accurate geometry and a very detailed 16k Image texture. This data can be used for condition monitoring, augmented, virtual and extended reality outputs, digital storytelling platforms, and more. 

IM: What else are you and the library working on right now?  

CK: So many things!  In the coming months, we will be launching an oral history program. We’re also reassessing our electronic resources, so more people can learn and benefit from the thousands of rare, archival documents in our collection. And we’re playing with new tools and emerging technologies that facilitate collecting, preserving, and providing access to the past, present and future of transit and transportation in Southern California. We recently hired some incredible new staff to help us bring these plans to life. Stay tuned! 

The Metro Transportation Research Library & Archive is open to the public with an appointment. For questions and to make appointment, email library@metro.net 

Categories: Transportation News

3 replies

  1. The biggest problem in the Los Angeles area is the MTA is being run by amateurs who have little or no experience except what they learned from text books. After the merger experienced upper management were terminated and shortly thereafter lower management followed suit and were replaced by former LACTC employees who’s jobs were being eliminated. The LACTC built the first light rail line, the Blue Line, using non standard track gauge which had be completely rebuilt twenty years later since none of the newer railcars could operate on it. They ran a second line, the Expo Line , into the Seventh and Flower station only to discover it created an operational nightmare since it could not accommodate two lines. Since the creation of the MTA three operating bus divisions have been closed down one of which was built for the 1984 Olympic and was one largest bus yards they had. It’s very clear they are reducing the number of buses in the fleet. They paint buses different colors which at one time created an operational nightmare since they restricted each color to a type of service which resulted in bus assignments being cancelled. Their highly published Electric Bus program is a nightmare. Currently because of the Summer heat the bus chargers don’t work which means they have to scramble for conventional buses and since they perceive those routes that use these buses as more important, regular service on other lines are cancelled with their busses reassigned to the electric bus lines. The MTA should be abolished and the new agencies Board of Directors should be independently elected, not appointed nor those elected to other offices like the Board of Supervisor and L.A. Mayor. Then pull some EXPERTS out of retirement to put transit in Los Angeles back on the right track.

  2. if all those lines and dotted lines were to be made into an underground rail system, especially throughout the center of the city — we would have a system that rivals NYC, and I would rarely drive (if you placed Manhattan on top of this map, it would extend from downtown to Santa Monica & between the Hollywood hills and Culver City hills behind MGM)

    • Doug, I like your ideas, but they arent pratical due to cost involved.