When I first visited Los Angeles, exploring neighborhoods quickly became one of my favorite pastimes. Then unencumbered with an occupation, I spent many of my days in various communities, collecting souvenirs as if vacationing abroad. Even though I've now made Los Angeles my home for over a decade, I still find that there is no end to new discoveries, even in my own neighborhood, Silver Lake, where I've resided my entire time here. Though Los Angeles is often stereotyped as the ultimate car city, it once boasted the largest network of interurban rail, and there are numerous abandoned rail paths that have become, in many cases, hidden greenways.
The other day a friend (and her baby and dog) and I made plans to explore and burn calories on some of Silver Lake's public stairways. In Silver Lake (as well as other hilly communities like Echo Park, Elysian Heights, Franklin Hills, Highland Park, Hollywood, Mt. Washington, Pacific Palisades, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and El Sereno), steep hillsides are traversed by a network of concrete steps built mostly in the 1920s. We decided to begin our walk with the Waverly Stairs, which connect Waverly and Fletcher Drives.
After we made our way down the Waverly stairs we crossed Fletcher Drive and approached a hillside dotted with concrete structures. Locals sometimes refer to these mysterious orthostats as Silver Lake's Stonehenge. Over the years I've seen them utilized for various artistic means, most memorably a collection of old CRT televions painted with anti-war slogans. Despite their nickname I always doubted that ancient Beaker folk had a hand in their creation, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I learned of their true purpose.
It seems that back in the 1900s a train traveled along this route. Los Angeles has a surprisingly long and amazingly complicated public transit history so I'll attempt to keep it simple. Construction began on a local train line in 1903 by L.C. Brand's Los Angeles & Glendale Electric Railway. However, in 1904 Brand sold his company to Henry E. Huntington's Los Angeles Inter-Urban Railway (LAIU), also known as the Green Cars for their color scheme. LAIU was later leased to Pacific Electric Railway, also owned by Huntington, but known as the Red Cars. In 1908 the local line, heretofore known as "The Glendale Line," was extended to Burbank and thus became "The Glendale-Burbank Line." Its other terminus was located in Downtown Los Angeles.
The acronym "NIMBY" originated in 1980, and though I've never seen its antonym "IMBY" in use, in the early 20th century developers and homeowners viewed proximity to public transportation as a bonus and usually chose to locate themselves (and their backyards) close to train lines.
Silver Lake's Stonehenge is actually the Pacific Electric Red Car Viaduct Footing (LA Historic-Cultural Monument #770). In 1904, a nearly 454 foot long bridge, the Fletcher Viaduct, was built over Fletcher Drive, which ran forty feet below. In 1928, when Fletcher was paved, the timber bridge was replaced with a steal structure mounted on these concrete footings. The newer structure soared more than 60 feet above the street and remained in place until 1959, when it and the nearby Riverside Drive Viaduct at Glendale Boulevard were demolished. Today these concrete footings, the public stairs, dirt paths and bridge pylons serve as reminders of Los Angeles's once extensive rail network.
We scaled the hill and then walked down a level path. As we walked along the old train route, we encountered a small group of young skaters who sat admiring the view, enjoying the weather, and passing a bowl amongst themselves. But otherwise the trail was empty.
After a short stretch, the trail turns into Silver Lake Court. On any map that I've seen, there's no indication that Silver Lake Court is (unlike any other Silver Lake street that comes to mind) a dusty, unpaved dirt road. With no red-painted curbs or parking meters, the road is lined with broken-down vehicles in various states of disrepair. Some of the adjacent homes are as apparently run-down as the broken down trucks and cars. Here we witnessed a couple of cars driving, although we felt transported far from the Silver Lake we're familiar with.
This quiet stretch of railroad property has over the years been the site of several heated wars between developers and their opponents. After the tracks were removed, the right-of-way sat neglected for decades before developers successfully secured a zone-change in 1981. Since then numerous absentee land-owners have announced their intentions to build residences on the strangely-shaped parcel, but none have thus far done so.
Nearby, other developers have been more successful. A century ago, a nearby hillside on the other side of the Glendale Freeway was the site of the Semi-Tropic Park. A group calling themselves the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists bought a tract of land there and built cabins, hosted campers, and communicated with spirits. Their name seems to reflect the effort of many boosters of the day to reinvent Chaparral-dominated Southern California as a "Semi-Tropical" paradise. Although their 1905 articles of incorporation state the aim "to acquire, operate and maintain permanent camp grounds in the County of Los Angeles," the camp grounds have since been subdivided and developed.
Silver Lake Court ends behind Rose Scharlin Co-Operative Nursery School, but the old Red Car path continues on through a small, sun-dappled woodland known locally as Red Car Canyon. After a short, rather shady stretch that blends with nearby residents' back yards, the trail once again opens up into a rather large and stunning meadow. The mostly green oasis was punctuated by the indigo blossoms of lupines and graced by the presence of birds and butterflies. For a moment one can successfully ignore the constant roar and smell of exhaust from the nearby freeway, which arrived in the 1960s.
Near the cul-de-sac of Corralitas Drive the dirt trail connects to Corralitas Walk, a paved walkway that runs parallel to the freeway, continuing roughly along the old railway's course until it reaches Allesandro Way. At the corner of Allesandro Way and Lake View Avenue, Corralitas Walk connects again to paved streets. At the corner of the intersection is one of the area's best known attractions: a building constructed and opened in 1924 as the home of the interdenominational Holyland Bible Knowledge Society. For now, it remains yet another neighborhood attraction on my list of things to check out at another time.
This area was served by the Whitmore Stop, the terminus of the Pacific Electric Railway's short Edendale Line. Edendale referred to the neighborhood located in what's now Echo Park and Silver Lake that was famous for being the center of film production on the west coast. Today few reminders exist, although the local post office is still called the Edendale Station, there's still Edendale Place, and the former Mack Sennett Studio where Keystone Kops films were shot still stands behind a Jack in the Box -- although it's been repurposed as a Public Storage facility.
The canyon between Elysian Heights and Silver Lake is home to one of the termini of the Glendale Freeway. In 1960, homes that had once existed in the area along the Edendale Line were demolished to make way for the construction of the 2 Freeway -- what many then no doubt considered to be a transportation trade up. Consequently, Corralitas Drive was cut off from automobile access from the rest of Silver Lake, except by Rosebud Avenue. Where a train used to pass through a fragrant evergreen forest, cars now speed through a cloud of exhaust fumes of their own making.
We continued down Allesandro until we arrived at Loma Vista Place. Loma Vista isn't just another public stairway nor a regular street, but a so-called "stair street" lined with homes only accessible by a long, narrow, steep set of stairs. On one side of the hill there are six flights of 166 stairs. On the other there are ten flights of 182. Residents' cars and waste bins are parked at the bottom on either side.
After we emerged at the bottom of the hill, a few moments of blinking confusion followed before my sense of direction clicked back on and we realized that we were very near the Red Lion Tavern, a beloved, kitschy "gasthaus" opened in 1959, and is today the oldest German bar in operation in Los Angeles. We suddenly found ourselves craving hefeweizen (the dog drank water and the baby chewed on a coaster), and after quenching our thirsts we headed back in the direction our starting point. Before ending our walk we detoured down one last public stairwell, the Ivan Hill Stairs -- a pretty, tranquil path overgrown with ivy and fragrant with the smell of drooping wisteria blossoms.
After we concluded our walk, I was still feeling something like nostalgia (since I was born long after the train made its final journey in 1955). I rode my bike over to Atwater Village's Red Car River Park, a small pocket park in the shadow of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge (see top photo). One of the old bridge's pylons is painted with a mural (painted by lead artist Rafael Escamilla with contributors Tom Hinds and Roxanne Salazar) depicting the train that once crossed over the Glendale Narrows -- one of the most attractive sections of the Los Angeles River and one quite at odds with the image of a paved channel.
While over in the Corralitas Red Car Property opponents clash about the possibility of homes being built, does anyone else wish for the return of light rail?
- A Los Angeles Primer
- Arrival Stories
- Block by Block
- Engaging Spaces
- Green Justice
- I Am Los Angeles