Over the last 10 years or so Gourmet Ghosts has found plenty of strange, weird and even deadly things that happened in Los Angeles, so we thought we’d share them with you – and what better day than this? Selling thin air for millions, creating counterfeit streets, faking your own death and more; everything you’re about to read is true. Or is it?
Selling Thin Air
Paying millions for thin air might sound like the ultimate scam, but in crowded U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles—where in property development the only way is up—owners can legally sell the empty space above their properties.
Laws concerning so-called “air rights” are said to date back to 13th century Rome, and if your building doesn’t reach the City’s height limits or sits on only part of your plot, then the clear cubic feet left behind (or above) are yours to “transfer” to someone else.
In the mid-1980s developers of the US Bank Tower in downtown L.A. paid around $125m for the air rights of the Central Library. It was a win for book lovers, as part of the money went to the library’s redevelopment after its 1986 fire, though the 72 story US Bank Tower is no longer the tallest building in town (the Wilshire Grand Center, which opened in 2017, won that prize).
Perhaps more famous thanks to its appearance in 1982’s Bladerunner and others, the Romanesque Revival wonder that is the Bradbury Building also sold its air rights for $1m to Japanese developers in the 1980s. Since then, especially in cities like New York, prices have gone even higher.
Remember Thomas Guides? Every Angeleno used to have one of these thick, bound map books in their cars, at least before the days of Waze, Google Maps and countless other traffic GPS apps.
A 2012 donation to the Map Room at the Los Angeles Central Library included every Thomas Guide issued, and some of them had a surprise in their pages: trap streets.
Used in maps around the world for centuries, they were fictional or mis-drawn streets that were deliberately included as a way to help spot illegal copying. Some were genuine mistakes or just cartographic jokes, but often they could be reprinted for years before being removed – or not.
Librarians and collectors combed the new collection and found several fake San Diego roads in Guides from the early 1980s to early 1990s, several planned roads (and a golf course) in the SFV neighborhood of Porter Ranch that were in the 1969 edition, gone by 1977, then back in 1987, while maps in the late 1990s had a non-existent road connecting Scadlock Lane and Mulholland Drive in Sherman Oaks.
An article in the LA Times from March 1981 saw the then-VP of Thomas Brothers confessing they sprinkle fictitious names throughout their guides; he picked up a random guide on and pointed out La Taza Drive in Upland and Loma Drive in San Bernardino; both were in maps into the 1990s, but gone by 2005.
Trap streets aren’t just in California: they’re a worldwide phenomenon. There are even mystery towns and islands, and the famous London A-Z was said to have close to 100 incorrect or fake streets up until at least 2006. Map makers will usually deny this, as do Goggle Maps today, though they do place amusing “Easter eggs” in theirs.