Angels' Flight

At 3rd and Hill Streets a visitor in the '40s would have encountered another long-time L.A. institution — Angel's Flight incline railway, which charged a nickel fare. The railway was removed from the hill by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) prior to 1970 so that the entire top of the hill could be lowered to allow construction of a two-level access environment, with plaza and pedways on top and auto roads underneath. The plan reflected the philosophy of the modernist or International Style, which rejected the traditional city street. Angel's Flight was re-installed on the hill about a half block south of the original site, and now unites California Plaza to the more plebeian city below. In the photo below left we see the turn-of-the-century Hillcrest Hotel and Astoria Hotel, on Olive Street, on Bunker Hill. These were residential hotels. The four brick buildings in the view at right are the Ferguson Building — a 7-story office building — the Hulbert Apartment Hotel (at 3rd and Clay Street), a 5-story apartment building at 3rd and Clay, and, next to the Angels Flight station, the 8-story former Elks building at Olive and 3rd, which was an residence hotel by the time of this view. "Apartment hotels" were a type of apartment building in the early 20th century that offered various services such as housecleaning. Note the old-style multi-globe street lights in these photos.

Angel's Flight Ferguson Building

The building at the right, in the photo above left, is the Hotel Belmont, a tourist hotel in the '30s. "You will enjoy a new experience in hotel living, combining the best features of club, social and home life," says a 1930s hotel brochure. The hotel featured a "Spanish patio" which we see in the photo below.

Hotel Belmont Courtyard

The Hotel Belmont was demolished by the CRA as part of the Bunker Hill urban renewal project, along with the four buildings next to Angel's Flight on the south side of 3rd Street. Angelus Plaza — a housing complex for seniors — was built on this site. The photo below shows 3rd Street and Hill today. The re-design of this side of Hill Street includes wide setbacks of buildings from the street, a huge parking garage for Angelus Plaza, and lawns and trees. In essence, this is a re-design that imposes an inappropriate suburban design in what historically had been a dense urban area.

Third and Hill Remake

The photo of Angel's Flight below was taken in 1909, before the construction of the Hulbert Apartment Hotel (souteast corner of Clay and 3rd). This gives a better shot of the two former Elks' Club buildings next to the Flight — a 5 story building fronting on Clay Street and a 7 story building fronting on Olive Street. The 5 story building shown here was a reinforced concrete building erected in 1909. In later years these buildings were operated as a single-room occupancy hotel.

Third and Clay Streets 1909

The photo below of Hill Street, taken from Clay Street in the late '60s, shows the Victorian buildings adjacent to the Grand Central Market. The tall brick building in the center, located at 3rd and Broadway, was built in the teens at a cost of one million dollars and housed the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water District for many years. On the ground floor of that building are the Million Dollar Pharmacy and Million Dollar Theater (built originally for movie entrepreneur Sid Grauman).
Hill Street from Clay Street

Below left we see a duplex on Clay Street with the Million Dollar Building rising in the background. In the photo at right we see the steps alongside the 3rd Street tunnel portal, across 3rd Street from Angel's Flight. These residence hotels around Angel's Flight were the setting for John Fante's early 1930s novel "Ask the Dust".
Duplex on Clay Street

Third Street Steps

Continuing north on Hill Street there are by the '40s numerous breaks in the street frontage for parking lots along the west side of the street. On the east side of the street we encounter the Hotel Astor at 2nd Street, shown at right. The row of 3-story buildings along the north side of 2nd Street in this photo have been demolished for — what else? — a parking lot. The Hotel Astor has been completely rehabbed as the tourist-oriented Kawada Hotel.

Hotel Astor at 2nd and Hill

The next photo shows the same view today.

Second Street east from Hill Today

The Astor Hotel is at right in the following photo, circa 1948. The 9 story building on the northeast corner is the Fashion League Building. This was originally the Union League Club. The Union League was the main Republican Party political club in Southern California in the early 1900s. Note the parking lots on the west side of Hill Street.

Fashion League Building

Court Hill

In the photo above you can see tunnels in the distance. Those tunnels ran through a hill called Court Hill. Both Hill Street and Broadway had tunnels through Court Hill. In the photo below we're looking southwest towards First and Hill. First Street comes in behind the streetcar. At this point First Street is in a valley between Bunker Hill and Court Hill. The apartment houses in the center are on Bunker Hill. The hill at right is Court Hill. The streetcar in this 1949 shot is running inbound on the Hollywood Boulevard streetcar line, which runs through Court Hill in a tunnel.

First and Hill

If we were to walk through the Hill Street auto tunnel and turn around and look to the south, we'd see the scene shown in the next photo. Here we see a Pacific Electric outbound Hollywood Boulevard streetcar stopped at Temple Street. The 1940s noir movie Criss Cross with Burt Lancaster begins with an opening shot of Lancaster getting off a PE streetcar at exactly this location, and he then climbs the staircase up the hill behind the streetcar. Court Hill was leveled in the '50s to make way for the Civic Center...built in the monuments-in-a-park style favored by planners in the early 20th century.

Court Hill

If we were to turn around at this location and look north, we'd seen the scene brought to us by the next photo.

Temple and Hill 1946

In this shot, circa 1946, a Los Angeles Railway A line streetcar is turning off Temple Street to enter the tunnel under Court Hill. The streetcar at right is running outbound on the Hollywood Boulevard streetcar line. It will cross Temple Street and then run through another tunnel...shown below.

Fort Moore Hill Tunnel

This tunnel runs under Fort Moore Hill. The mouth of that tunnel is at the approximate location of the present-day Santa Ana Freeway cut through downtown Los Angeles. The north portal of this tunnel was at Sunset Boulevard. The alley at left ran up to California Street, which ran over the top of the tunnel. California Street no longer exists...replaced by the freeway cut.

Angels Flight wasn't the only funicular in downtown Los Angeles. If you were to walk north along Broadway from 1st Street you would encounter Court Flight which ran up the east face of Court Hill. The next image shows Court Flight next door to the Hotel Broadway (from a postcard mailed in 1916). Just north of this spot, Broadway entered a tunnel through a part of Court Hill.

Hotel Broadway circa 1916

Bunker Hill

At the top of Angel's Flight was an area that had become a working class lodging house district by the '20s. Old Victorian houses were cut up into small units to increase rental revenue for abstentee landlords. Once-fashionable apartment buildings were no longer able to attract higher-income residents.

The commercial center of the hill was the block of 3rd Street at the top of Angel's Flight. We see this block in the photo below, by William Reagh, looking east towards the Angel's Flight station at Olive Street. The building across Grand at the left is the Lovejoy Apartments and the building at the extreme left is the Grand Hotel — a residential hotel. The Angel's Flight pharmacy is on the corner at the right. A dry cleaners is located further down the block. This piece of terrain was cleansed of its working class residents to provide space for the financial industry towers, cultural monuments, and upscale condo towers that currently occupy the hill.

Third Street on the Hill

The two grainy images below are shots of this same little business district on 3rd Street on the hill. These shots are taken from the 1951 noir movie "Cry Danger". The shot on the left shows the block of stores on 3rd Street. There is a small grocery just beyond the liqour store and the dry cleaners is this side of the liquor store. The shot on the right shows a shootout in front of the Los Amigos bar on the southwest corner of 3rd and Olive...across the street from the Angels Flight station.

A famous location on the hill was the Melrose Hotel (below), on Grand Avenue south of 2nd Street. In the 1920s famous Socialist Party mayoral candidate and labor lawyer Job Harriman and his wife moved into the Melrose Hotel.

A narrow street, usually free of autos (90% of the residents of Bunker Hill did not own automobiles), between Olive and Hill was Clay Street, lined with numerous Victorian era buildings. The following photo looks up Clay Street from 4th Street. The Subway Terminal Building was behind the back of the photographer, on the other side of 4th St.

Clay Street from 4th

The following photo shows the same view today.

Site of Clay Street

In the photo at right, by Donald Duke, the area along Clay Street at 3rd, crossed by Angel's Flight, provides an almost European flavor.

Angel's Flight Crosses Clay Street

The Bunker Hill project was the first redevelopment project in L.A. The initial plan for Bunker Hill was developed under the mayoral administration of Fletcher Bowron in the early '50s. The first CRA under Bowron planned to remove all the old buildings on the hill, in the slash-and-burn style of urban redevelopment of that era. The Bowron CRA also came up with a plan for the top of the hill that was similar to what was actually done on Bunker Hill in being in the International Style, derived from Le Corbusier's "towers-in-a-park" concepts of the '30s. The consultants hired by the Bowron CRA did a study of the housing needs and preferences of downtown workers, and came up with a plan for limit-height (13-story) apartment highrises on the hill that would have rents affordable to downtown workers. The 1951 CRA model for the hill is shown below.

Worker housing for Bunker Hill

But Bowron was run out of office by the downtown elite in 1953, in a nasty campaign orchestrated by the L.A. Times, and Bunker Hill was a major issue in the campaign. Then how did Bowron's plan differ from the subsequent plan worked out under the various developer-friendly administrations in later years? The key question was: Whose turf was this going to be? The Bowron CRA proposed a commercial high rise apartment development that would be oriented to providing housing for downtown workers. What the downtown elite wanted was for the working class to be moved off the hill, and the terrain dedicated to financial district expansion, elite housing, and cultural monuments favored by the elite classes.

About 90 percent of the residents of the old Bunker Hill didn't own a motor vehicle. But the new Bunker Hill is highly auto-oriented by design. The top of the hill was chopped off so as to rebuild Grand Avenue as a two-level street, with lower level access for deliveries and for access to parking. The photo below looks north up the lower level of Grand Avenue from 4th Street.

What caused the decline of the downtown?

After the '60s, there was an exodus of corporate- and finance-related offices from downtown L.A., with major new office construction scattered along the Wilshire corridor. The largest of these new office centers is Century City, with 9 million square feet of office space, developed in the late '60s on a 20th Century Fox studio site. Today, the various office concentrations from Wilshire Center and downtown Hollywood west to the Wilshire and Olympic corridors in Santa Monica jointly contain more than 45 million square feet of office space, about equal to all the office space in downtown San Francisco. By comparison, there is only 32 million square feet of office space in downtown L.A. today. A significant part of the employment in downtown L.A. in recent years has been industrial in nature — jewelry making, garment manufacturing and distribution, and the like. This makes downtown L.A. one of the most industrial downtowns in the USA.

Mike Davis suggests that the collapse of downtown as an office and retail center was an effect of the Watts riots. This may have contributed to the desire of the corporate executives to relocate but I don't think this was the most important influence. For one thing, the riots were largely confined to South L.A. in 1965. In the '60s the white working class, not people of color, were the majority on the streets in the downtown. There are three more important reasons:

The Bunker Hill redevelopment project contributed to downtown's decline in two ways. There were 21,400 residents on Bunker Hill, Court Hill and Fort Moore Hill (that is, 5th Street to Sunset Blvd) in 1940. These people were forced out by the Bunker Hill project, the removal of Court Hill for the Civic Center, and the removal of Fort Moore Hill for the Santa Ana Freeway cut.

The reduction in the population living in and around downtown eliminated a part of the market for downtown stores. These were people who were more likely to be out and about on downtown streets in the evening or on weekends. With their departure, theaters lost patronage and stores had fewer customers.

The population living within one mile of 7th and Broadway (center of the downtown for decades) was 105,800 in 1940. About half this population lived in the downtown...in older lodging houses or residential hotels...or on Bunker Hill, Court Hill and Fort Moore Hill. The other half lived in neighborhoods on the frindge of downtown to the south, south-west, west, and north. These people living in the downtown, on Bunker Hill or in the neighborhoods on the edge of the downtown, were typically working class people who worked in downtown stores or offices, warehouses, or factories on the edge of downtown (such as garment factories).

By 2000 the population in this area had been reduced to only 45 percent of the level of 1940.

But I think the most important factor in downtown's decline was the failure to build a rapid transit system feeding into downtown in the first half of the 20th century. Central Los Angeles was still heavily dependent on public transit as late as the 1940s, and there were numerous plans for rapid transit proposed between 1906 and 1948.

The lack of accessibility became increasingly a problem after the '60s due to rising traffic congestion. Downtown Los Angeles was competing with newer office and retail centers...centers that were designed with auto accessibility in mind.

The downtown had been created by market forces in the early 1900s. The most importance force concentrating jobs and offices and stores downtown was its location at the center of the Los Angeles transit system in an era when few people had their own private vehicles. This made the small amount of land at the center highly valuable. This tended to push out residential uses...especially individual houses...and create an area built out wall-to-wall with commercial buildings. As this advantage was lost in later years, the older retail buildings with marginal ability to extract rents were knocked down for parking lots.

After 1946, and especially after 1960, the city of Los Angeles carried out a highly destructive zoning policy of requiring high amounts of off-street parking for new construction. As the amount of the downtown taken up by parking lots and parking structures expanded, much of the street frontage became barren and boring for people on foot. The various remaining buildings then become more dispersed in various clusters rather than forming a continuous wall-to-wall area of streetscape that can provide potential destinations or sites for people walking through the downtown.

The huge outflow of corporate, law and financial offices to the Westside caused a collapse in demand for downtown office space. This contributed to the virtual disappearance of the old financial district on Spring Street, with the remaining office uses mainly concentrated in the "new" financial district that runs from Bunker Hill south...or the massive concentration of government buildings in the Civic Center. Collapse in demand for office space led to the upper floors in many buildings being rented out for telecommunications switching gear.

The collapse of downtown L.A. as an office and retail center led to major declines in real estate values and a widespread shift in ownership, with speculators moving in to capture bargains. The current loft boom enables many of the new owners to capture profits from the higher market values of their properties when they are converted to market-rate housing for the professional/managerial class.

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