Urban Geography: Los Angeles

Best known as being the world's seat of the movie industry, Los Angeles is by far the largest city in California, and the second-largest city in the United States (after New York City). This is speaking in terms of population; Although central Los Angeles (the part which officially bears the name of the "City of Los Angeles") only has about 3 million people, when you take the surrounding suburbs which officially comprise part of the overall metropolis, the population comes to over 16 million. Although there are plenty of cities in the world with populations larger than that, Los Angeles stands as the second-largest city in the world in terms of geographic area. (It used to be the largest, until London, England overtook it in the mid-1900s.)

Although it is sometimes a glamorous city, Los Angeles is regarded as being a cesspool by many, famous for its gangs and violent crime. Indeed, L.A. is one of the most crime-plagued cities in the entire United States, although it is certainly not the war zone that many cities of Third World countries have degenerated into. It's also one of the most polluted cities in the U.S., thanks to its enormous size (with subsequent dependance on cars to get anywhere) and incredibly bad placing in a large valley which means that fumes tend to settle in the valley and stay there. Nonetheless, many people love Los Angeles for its endless variety of sights and sounds. Yet L.A. remains, for the most part, a practical city, mainly an industrial centre of manufacturing and shipping. It is a remarkably flat city, thanks to a long-standing city ordnance prohibiting the construction of any building taller than 150 feet (a law placed due to the threat of earthquakes). This law has since been lifted, and L.A. has attained a reasonable number of skyscrapers since then, but they are still mostly in the downtown core; Drive through most neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and you'll be struck by how uniform and flat the scenery is for such a large city. Continuing the theme of being an industrial city, LAX (the abbreviation for the Los Angeles International Airport) is the largest airport in the world, and L.A. is also the freeway capital of the United States, with an almost excessive number of expressways connecting the city together. (Southern California was a pioneer of the freeway, as a way to get around faster than using the old grid-based surface street model that now maintains almost constant gridlock in New York City.) Heck, one of the cities in L.A. is officially known as the "City Of Industry".

(Note that a lot of people abbreviate Los Angeles as "LA", without the periods. However, I prefer to abbreviate it "L.A." whenever possible, because LA is also an abbreviation for the state of Louisiana. Although on a page about Los Angeles, it's probably understood that "LA" means Los Angeles, I try to be consistent.)


Beverly Hills

A sister to Hollywood, Beverly Hills is a primarily residential area. This is basically where the movie stars live, and Hollywood is where they go to work.


Made famous in countless rap songs, Compton is the most famous of south-central L.A.'s areas, and south-central Los Angeles is famous for being a haven for gang activity. In short, Compton is not the kind of place you willingly enter unless you have a very good reason to do so.

El Segundo

An industrial city in western Los Angeles, notable simply because it is where most people pass through to get to or from LAX. (See highway I-105.) ("El Segundo" is Spanish for "The Second", so named because it was the Standard Oil Company's second oil refinery in California.)


Who hasn't heard of Hollywood? In the northwest corner of metropolitan Los Angeles sits the world capital of the movie industry. Best way to get there is via the Hollywood Freeway (US101).

Inland Empire

The "Inland Empire" is the name given to the inland communities just east of Los Angeles County, primarily San Bernardino County and Riverside County. See those entries for further information.

Long Beach

Although it is connected to Los Angeles and is actually part of Los Angeles County, Long Beach is sometimes considered a separate city because of its large population of over 400,000. It is a major shipping port and has a freeway named after it: I-710.

Orange County

Los Angeles County's "Sister County", OC is to Los Angeles as Silicon Valley is to San Francisco. Orange County is where the yuppies and the professionals go, and there are probably more high-tech companies in OC than any other area in Southern California. Even though it's positively tiny compared to L.A. County and wedged into the southeast corner of L.A., it is semi-famous, mainly because it is considered the birth of "popular" punk (because rock group The Offspring are from OC) and "popular" ska (because No Doubt is from OC). Also, it is where Disneyland is located, contrary to the reports of many people who "round off" the location and say it's in L.A. The best way to get to OC is I-5. Main cities are Santa Ana and Anaheim.


A relatively small, sleepy city in the southern Inland Empire, Riverside is about as typical as a suburban community gets in America. Connects to Los Angeles via California State Highways 60 and 91.

San Bernardino

Semi-famous for having one of the highest murder rates of any city in the United States, San Bernardino is chiefly a ghetto town, although recent police efforts to clean up the city have made it much safer. It sits on I-10, which is called the San Bernardino Freeway or the Redlands Freeway at that point. (Redlands is an unremarkable suburban city just southeast of San Bernardino.)

San Diego

About two hours south of Los Angeles, San Diego sits considerably outside the scope of greater L.A. Even so, it is close enough (and major enough) a city that it is worth mentioning here. With more than a million people, San Diego is not just a small town; Directly across the U.S./Mexico border from Tijuana, S.D. gets its share of attention. If you're intending to move to Southern California and you want to settle down in a modern but safe American city, take a good long look at San Diego, a place which has somehow evaded the craziness of Los Angeles yet retains its industry and perfect weather. A bonus is that San Diego lies outside SoCal's "hot zone" of earthquakes, so you're less likely to have your house cave in on you than you would be in L.A. Chief freeways are I-5 and I-15.

San Fernando Valley

Located in northwest Los Angeles, this valley is home to the city of Van Nuys.

Santa Monica

A beautiful beach community in central-western Los Angeles.

Ventura (Full name: San Buenaventura)

The place where you end up if you go west from Los Angeles County. Ventura is a typical suburban city.

Principal Freeways And Roads

California State Highways

1: A world-famous road, California State Highway 1 is a long, winding trail that's alternately beautifully scenic and mildly terrifying. It spends most of its time winding along the Pacific coastline. If you follow it north to San Francisco, you'll have a very long and beautiful drive ahead of you, during which you'll spend most of your time with the ocean on your west, barely a few feet from your car, and a sheer mountain range on your east. While the scenery is beautiful, anyone who's driven Highway 1 a long way knows that it starts to get lonely out there. Very, very few cars drive this road in the remote areas, and if you run into trouble, you can almost be guaranteed that the mountains will block cell phones. Even so, Highway 1 is the most scenic way to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco. (Highway 1 is often called the "Pacific Coast Highway", although officially, that term only refers to a rather short stretch of the highway near Los Angeles.)

60: A relatively little-used highway that connects Route 10 in west Los Angeles to Route 215 in Riverside. Passes through Pomona. Most direct route from central Los Angeles to Riverside. Known as the Pomona Freeway from I-5 to Route 83 in Chino.

91: Most direct route from southern Los Angeles to Riverside. (From Route 5 to the Route 60/215/91 interchange, 91 is known as the Riverside Freeway.)

Interstate Freeways

I-5 Deemed the Santa Ana Freeway from the southern I-405/I-5 junction to the Route 5/10/60/US101 interchange. Goes southeast to Orange County, and north, through Sacramento, all the way to Blaine, Washington, at the Canadian border. From Route 94 (in San Diego) to the southern I-405/I-5 junction, I-5 is known as the San Diego Freeway. Also named the Golden State Freeway from the Route 5/10/60/US101 interchange to Route 14. (Interestingly, Interstate 5 is the only Interstate which runs all the way from Canada to Mexico.)

I-10 Reputed to be one of the most-travelled freeways in America in the Los Angeles/San Bernardino corridor, Interstate 10 begins at the south end of US101 in central Los Angeles, and continues east, through San Bernardino, Arizona, and Texas, all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, where it ends. (Although Floridans would say it BEGINS in Florida, and ENDS in Los Angeles.) From US101 to I-215, known as the San Bernardino Freeway. In San Bernardino and Riverside counties, it is called the Redlands Freeway.

I-15: A good way to get to San Diego, although the name "San Diego Freeway" is officially given to I-5. I-15 also goes north to Las Vegas in Nevada, and beyond that, Salt Lake City in Utah; It finally ends in Sweetgrass, Montana, at the Canadian border. I-15 is also the highway that exits onto the semi-famous Zzyzx Road. Although it's little more than a desert road in an isolated area (between Barstow, California, and the California/Nevada state line), people driving on I-15 usually remember that road's name above any other.

I-40: Beginning at I-15 in Barstow, California, and heading east to Arizona, I-40 is a largely forgettable highway with little scenery. It is known as the Needles Freeway, because it is basically the only way to get to Needles, California, a tiny desert town on the California/Arizona border. Although it doesn't have much on it, I-40 remains one of the only ways to go from California to Arizona, or vice-versa.

I-105: A short connecting freeway, I-105 is very important simply because it is the premier way to get to LAX. Otherwise, it is relatively unimportant. It starts in the west at Pershing Drive in El Segundo on the south boundary of LAX, and heads east, ending at I-605.

I-215: A short loop of freeway which branches off I-15. While I-15 runs through Los Angeles, I-215 passes through the Inland Empire, so people from San Bernardino or Riverside have a convenient way to get to I-15 without having to go through Los Angeles.

I-405: Disconnects from I-5 in northwest Los Angeles and runs north-south near the Pacific shore, finally merging up with I-5 again in the southeast.

I-605: This road matters primarily thanks to I-105, because I-605 is the shortest way to get from I-105 to I-10.

I-710: Known as the Long Beach Freeway from Route 1 to Route 5.

U.S. National Highways

Route 66: One of the most famous highways in the United States, Route 66 is a historic highway which today has been mostly replaced by interstates. In its heyday, it went went from Santa Monica to Chicago, Illinois. Today, although it's not what it used to be, Route 66 has been largely preserved, and you can still go cruising down this historic road in the outskirts of L.A. (For some reason, it is always referred to as "Route 66", never "US66" or any other terminology.)

US101: The quickest and easiest way to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco. US101 mirrors California State Highway 1 most of the trip, but sits slightly more inland, whereas Highway 1 hugs the coastline. In central Los Angeles, US101 ends and becomes Interstate highway 10. From Route 110 to Route 134, US101 is officially named the Hollywood Freeway.

For more information on L.A., check out the Web's premier source for all things Los Angeles, Los Angeles Almanac.

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