Interurban

Modernity
Grappling with modernity
The Valley, 1915
The Valley, 1915
Petit Ranch, 1920
Petit Ranch, 1920
Cahuenga Pass, 1922
Cahuenga Pass, 1922, when the trolley was king
Cahuenga Pass, 1949
Cahuenga Pass, 1949
Cahuenga Pass, 1955, no rails
Cahuenga Pass, 1955, no more rails
Last trolley car to Van Nuys, 1952
Last trolley car to Van Nuys, 1952
Hollywood Freeway, 1972
Cahuenga Pass, 1972

When was the happiest ratio between car and rail in Los Angeles?  Probably when the population was one quarter of what it is today. Let Harold Lloyd show you in three minutes of awesomeness.

Trolley photos courtesy of the Ralph Cantos Collection

To Cairo, With Love

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The elevated station at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, 1950.  The building on the left in bkgd is now the swanktastic PE Lofts. The building on the right contains the Santa Fe Lofts and other DTLA enticements.

One wonders which would be more surprising to the people riding the train that day: in the future there would be a swimming pool and day lounge atop an office building, or that people would eagerly proffer half their monthly income for a studio apartment there?  That people would urinate in the doorways without penalty, or that men would congregate flamboyantly with other men at a bar called the Redline?

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The station was replaced with a three level parking lot. Contrary to popular lore, the automobile didn’t bring an end to the train in LA. They were phased out and replaced by a fleet of buses.

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And what happened to the train cars? Many of them were taken to Terminal Island to be melted down at the Kaiser Steelworks. But the ones in the best condition were sold to the city of Cairo, where they were ridden until the wheels came off, literally.

Everything Old is New Again

There was no jaywalking in 1906 because there were no crosswalks.  There were no illegal left hand turns to make because there were no traffic signals. Automobiles and horse drawn carriages, cable cars and pedestrians  shared the roadway with men with brooms sweeping horse dung.  It is remarkable to think the people in this frame not only have no idea the earthquake is coming, but no idea we would, a century later, watch with fascination as they skittered across Market Street in black ankle length dresses and bowler hats and think: how primitive.  For them, compared to the Gold Rush days, this must have been the apex of modernity. Futuristic, even.

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In 1954 the monorail was Los Angeles’ great plan for shuttling people to the Valley. No, really. This is the mockup. It wasn’t going to be loud, dark and dingy like the elevated trains of New York and Chicago. It wasn’t going to blight the neighborhoods it served. It was going to be sleek and fast like the looming Jet Age.  “A proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.”  Among its most vocal proponents was none other than Ray Bradbury, a man who claimed never to have driven in a lifetime of living in LA.  In case you were wondering, there was a bond measure, and people voted with their tires.

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They voted for this. For little ranch houses with breezeways and sprinklers and streets names chosen randomly from the English countryside. For freedom of movement. An entire car culture was built around this freedom. A mating ritual developed around the car culture.  People came from all over California, to Van Nuys, to partake of it.

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They built muscle cars at the north end of the boulevard, and they sold them at the south end of the same street in the same week. There was no foreign competition for the Camaro, nor fuel standards, nor anti-lock brakes, nor airbags.  Eight cylinders and a gas pedal. Made to look cool and burn rubber and little else.

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Between the GM plant and the auto dealerships, they had both means of production and a promenade between the two to display the products of conception. You rev your engine. The girls would flip their hair. The mating call was complete.  There was nothing to keep you indoors.  It was a holistic, self-contained world.  Until it wasn’t.

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Now the arteries of Los Angeles are so clogged with cars, we are reviving the trains, along the very routes the track was once laid, then buried beneath asphalt.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

The Dance of Progress

Opening of Sepulveda Pass tunnel, 1930
The end of the beginning: Opening of Sepulveda Pass auto tunnel, 1930
The extent of street trolley service then
The extent of street trolley service then
Courtesy of CurbedLA
Courtesy of CurbedLA

Oh, the sums we spend today to recreate the world we once had….

Jakarta Twilight

Still life, with PTSD
Still life, with PTSD

I work the closing shift, which means I get to drive over the 405 in the middle of the afternoon, and return to the Valley at 10:30 pm. On a good day, Brentwood to Van Nuys in under 12 minutes, if I hit all the lights. I’m one of the few people in LA who loves his commute.  Like an idiot, I’ve tempted fate by saying this aloud.

Yesterday, I had to go to work early, which means I left early, which means I joined the tail end of the normal commuter flow, with everybody else.  How bad could it be?

Lets put it this way: at seven thirty, I was on Barrington,  four cars away from Sunset Blvd, looking out the window at this beautiful vintage gas station framed in milky twilight, and in a very civil mood. Off early! I could go to the gym!  Perhaps Mrs. UpintheValley was still awake and could be had for the price of a foot rub!  No tired lion, me. All possibilities were on the table.

At eight o’clock, darkness had fallen, and I was still next to the same gas station, on the Sunset side, and I was plotting revenge against everyone who ever wronged me.

The stoplight would cycle through, and nobody would move.  This didn’t dissuade anyone entering from side streets inserting the nose of their car into the scrum.  Unhappy honkings all around…random, pointless, like steer lowing in a slaughterhouse pen.

I thought of Joe Gillis evading the repo men in the opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, and how comically unrealistic that would play now.  When much of LA was laid out, traffic signals looked like this:

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Gas stations looked like movie palaces and Westwood Village looked like this.

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K-Town looked like this. That’s Oasis Church on the right.  It is now one of the shorter buildings on Wilshire Blvd.  Add three million people to this picture and take away the Pacific Electric Red Car.  That’s where we find ourselves today, scurrying to rebuild the public transportation we once had.    A bus and rail line for the working poor, slumped over in their seats, ear buds on, locked into their own podcasts, dreaming of the day they’ll be able to afford a car of their own.  And a house in Van Nuys.

It took me an hour to reach the freeway. That’s .25 mph.  Point two-five! The full Jakarta…

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When I entered Macleod, they were playing traditional Irish songs and ballads.  iPads were used in place of sheet music,  I couldn’t help noticing. Here, two centuries were working to shared advantage.  I ordered a Better Days ale. Beer has rarely tasted so good.