A Los Angeles Primer: Bunker Hill

Downtown's skyline appears to rise suddenly, due in part to contrast with the many low-rise miles surrounding it. But a handful of these skyscrapers look even taller, as I explain to visiting friends already vaguely familiar with them from countless establishing shots, for the simple reason that they stand on a hill. Sometimes I get into the background of Bunker Hill, the hill in question, and sometimes I don't. Certain cultural touchstones assist in the narrative: if they've read "Ask the Dust," John Fante's acclaimed novel of 1930s Los Angeles, they'll remember it as the formerly grand neighborhood in which its protagonist, hapless and near-penniless young writer Arturo Bandini, made his uncomfortable home in a residential hotel. Or if they've seen the largely forgotten mid-nineties techno-thriller "Virtuosity," they may recognize it as a "virtual reality" city through which Denzel Washington's vigilante ex-cop chased Russell Crowe's computer-generated serial killer. These two of Bunker Hill's many appearances as settings, only 56 years apart, tell a story by themselves.

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Or rather, they raise a question: how did the place turn from a crumbling neighborhood for struggling artists, old folks, and pure eccentrics into a stand of gleaming towers suitable to, as it were, simulate a simulation? If I don't feel like talking about Bunker Hill, I can simply refer these friends to the literature; few transformations of Los Angeles' built environment have produced so much documentation, discussion, and modern attempts at urban archaeology. (See also Nathan Masters' post "Rediscovering Downtown L.A.'s Lost Neighborhood of Bunker Hill".) The Victorian homes of the old Bunker Hill, developed as a swank neighborhood-with-a-view in the late nineteenth century and already a low-rent but reportedly dignified shambles in the twenties, have now passed into Los Angeles lore as symbolic of all we lost as the heavy hand of mid-century development swept across the city.

Even the hill itself, its elevation lowered in the name of urban renewal, has seen taller days. Yet, though now tunneled through, it still serves as a geographical separator between downtown and the rest of the city to the west — and, given the current or imminent presence of formidable institutions like the Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and the Broad Museum, arguably serves as a psychological separator as well. The lower floors of most of Bunker Hill's dominant seventies- and eighties-style skyscrapers — "the big-city illusion of high-rise towers," as David Gebhard and Robert Winter's architectural guide puts it — still offer little to the street life, and walking past them you get a physical sense of downtown's penchant for constructing fortresses. Los Angeles' center suffers from no lack of other styles of striking, large-scale buildings, especially on Bunker Hill's portion of the aptly named Grand Avenue, but few have brought to great life the spaces around them.

Frank Gehry's stainless-steel Disney Concert Hall, which has drawn detractors as numerous and outspoken as its boosters, tends to come up in these discussions, but it does at least bring one undeniable element to the sidewalk: people photographing the Disney Concert Hall. The temptation to sneak up behind these architectural shutterbugs and snap a picture of them pointing their own lenses at the hall usually proves irresistible to me. Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles, though less controversial, also gives off the aesthetic and social impression of a marooned spaceship: neat to walk by and point out, and I wouldn't want them to go away, but how, exactly, did they get here in the first place? For all its discomfiting qualities, though, modern Bunker Hill might well make for more of an object of interest, especially to the outside world, than a surviving pre-war Bunker Hill ever could have. I often have occasion to visit today's "Virtuosity" version, whereas I can't imagine what would have brought me to the "Ask the Dust" version unless I already lived there.

Still, as a writer, albeit one nothing like John Fante or Arturo Bandini, perhaps such a dense, aging, low-cost neighborhood would have seemed like just the ticket. And I daresay that elements of Fante and Bandini's Bunker Hill do survive, albeit often in incarnations neither of them would have recognized. I think, for instance, of Angelus Plaza, a trio of utilitarian but nonetheless faintly cheerful color-coded apartment towers — Jubilate, Noontide, and Evensong, according to their signs — seemingly inhabited exclusively by elderly Asians. Yet this also illustrates a fundamental change in the makeup of the whole city: Bunker Hill housed a fair few senior citizens in the thirties, but in "Ask the Dust," the Italian-American Bandini regards himself as something close to an alien, and even Camilla Lopez, his Mexican-American object of affection, goes defensively by Camilla Lombard. Would either of them recognize a Los Angeles so thickly populated with people born in Japan, China, Korea — to name only countries of origin they'd probably have heard of? But they'd certainly recognize Angels Flight, the funicular that took Bandini up to his home on the rare occasion he could scrape together the fare.

They'd recognize the funicular itself, that is, if not quite its context; after nearly three decades packed away, it re-opened half a block south of its original location in 1996. This slight repositioning strikes me as a quintessentially Los Angeles thing to do, though I couldn't tell you exactly why. Maybe it has something to do with the way this second generation of operation has stripped Angels Flight of its utility, converting it into a rattly novelty, and indeed an enjoyably rattly novelty on which I make sure to take the aforementioned visiting friends for its brief ride. (Logically, then, they may one day do the same to the freeways when they outlive their usefulness to commuters, repurposing them into tracks for weekend pleasure drives.) Yet unless we've planned on museum-going, I usually can't think of much to upon reaching the top except studying the shimmering metal-and-glass texture patterns of the high-rises we look up, like apes at the monolith, and find looming over us.

Photos by Colin Marshall.


About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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