Last stand of the Melrose Hotel, 1957, photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library

Laws That Shaped L.A.: How Bunker Hill Lost its Victorians

Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated by a variety of experts - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.


This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Housing Act of 1949 

Year: 1949

Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

On July 1, about 63 years ago, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Housing Act of 1949.

"This far-reaching measure is of great significance to the welfare of the American people," Truman said that day in a statement. "It opens up the prospect of decent homes in wholesome surroundings for low-income families now living in the squalor of the slums."

And how would the federal government achieve this noble aim? Through a set of legal and financial policy tools including an offer to chip in two of Uncle Sam's dollars towards urban redevelopment for every one dollar spent locally.

But in practice - either as a cause or as an effect - the Housing Act wound up contributing to the gutting of established residential neighborhoods located in urban centers throughout the United States.

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"And then," says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Professor of Urban Planning and Associate Dean of the School of Public Affairs at UCLA, "instead of being replaced by residential units, [the residential units] were mostly replaced by office, commercial and retail."

Loukaitou-Sideris explains that during the past half-century the Act - along with its follow-up, the Housing Act of 1954 and also the California Community Redevelopment Law of 1945** - had an outsized influence on Downtown Los Angeles.

Model of Bunker Hill Redevelopment, 1962. Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library

The professor cites Downtown's Bunker Hill (see this video) as a leading case study.

This once leafy hilltop neighborhood of large Victorian homes, the Angel's Flight funicular, multi-unit housing, hotel stock and small businesses infamous from John Fante books, the L.A. Noire video game, and noir films such as Kiss Me Deadly is today the province instead of many a flat-topped skyscraper (see, "Why is L.A.'s Skyline so Bland?").

Loukaitou-Sideris says the Housing Act's 'Title 1' established the principle of urban redevelopment. "Basically, the idea was to commit federal funds to clear what they believed to be slum areas," she says, "and to give money to local housing authorities and to community redevelopment agencies to clear these districts."

The Housing Act mandated that the resulting redevelopment would be "predominately residential." The bill took four years to get through Congress and had been percolating, intellectually, since the Great Depression. The end result was a bramble of a bill with loopholes big enough to run all the trains of Penn Station through.

The professor explains:

"The term 'predominately residential' could mean either that the particular area that was earmarked for development had at least fifty percent residential units that could be cleared or that the new construction had to be residential. But it did not say that it had to happen necessarily for both.
"So what ended up happening all around the country - and certainly in Bunker Hill - is that a number of areas were condemned as blighted, as needing improvement, and some of those areas were not really slum areas."

Los Angeles city officials at the time disagreed. As part of the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project, 7,310 Bunker Hill housing units were demolished, according to a recent Community Redevelopment Agency / Los Angeles report.

That report says: "With the onset of the Great Depression, the area's housing stock became severely deteriorated and crime, fires, and health conditions worsened by the 1940s. The district's squalor and crime discouraged new investments and the recycling of existing housing stock. Bunker Hill, formerly the site of lavish Victorian mansions, came to symbolize urban decay in the heart of the metropolis."
Bunker Hill Panorama,1960. Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library
Loukaitou-Sideris disagrees. "There were areas that had seen a change in population, they had seen more rental units, there was certainly a shift in socio-demographics. But they were not slum areas, they were not really dilapidated areas," she says. "Nevertheless, they were considered as blighted and so designated. So federal funding was used to clear the area completely. And for many decades, these areas remained empty and used only for parking."

Loukaitou-Sideris makes clear that she isn't in favor of keeping the old simply for nostalgia's sake - although she does point out that tourism spending does seem to be reaped from that circumstance. Instead, Loukaitou-Sideris is interested in the composition and perspective of a given area.

The end result in Bunker Hill, she says, was a sea change in a neighborhood's perspective.

"I love the Frank Gehry building," Loukaitou-Sideris says of Bunker Hill's Disney Hall, "but the focus of development in the American downtown centered very much around these iconic buildings. They are great but they don't give much to the City in terms of how they relate to the street. They are iconic objects but they do not get into any conversation with the environment. If you walk along these buildings, they are pretty much-inward-oriented."

That wasn't the case in Bunker Hill's past. "The neighborhood was much more outward-orientated," she says. "You could walk on the streets of Bunker Hill and you could feel that you were there; the different blocks were quite inter-connected. There were also these continuous facades, there were stores that were opening up to the streets. So there was this kind of neighborhood fabric that the post-modern building have not been able to achieve because each building is kind of an object in itself and it kind of aspires to be really self-referential and does not relate to a surrounding context very well. That's something that we have lost."
'The Castle' and 'The Saltbox' being moved from Bunker Hill to Heritage Square, 1969. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
That loss is not unique to Los Angeles. "The sad reality is," Loukaitou-Sideris says, "is that if you look at most cities in the world, there are very few exceptions that have been able to protect part of their historic city."

Stockholm, she says, is one such example. But in the U.S., urban renewal took a heavy toll on downtowns. "This was prime land, it became extremely valuable," she says. "So the single story home, the tenement homes, the modest multi-family housing was too valuable to exist in that center of the city. And so cities really took action in collaboration with, in partnerships with major private corporations, they completely reshaped the face of downtowns."

Loukaitou-Sideris does note that while the Housing Act of 1949 facilitated all that happening, she thinks the same would likely have happened eventually, without the massive infusion of federal money.

"I wish that the public sector was more practical to protect certain historical chunks of downtown," she says. "I fully realize that the whole of it can't be protected, because that's the story of private markets and real estate markets."


**Later stories in the Laws That Shaped LA series will look at Chavez Ravine, Century City and other development and redevelopment topics, including more about the likely shuttering CRA / LA.

To suggest a Law That Shaped LA, or to suggest someone else to ask for their key law or laws, please leave a comment below, respond via Departures Facebook page and Twitter feed, or email editor Jeremy Rosenberg at arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com.

Top photo: Last stand of the Melrose Hotel, 1957, photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library



About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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Brilliant. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it and history is repeating itself in Hollywood.

I hope Hollywoodians will heed warning from our past and protect themselves from the crony capitalists and their cohorts on the City council like Garcetti who would turn Hollywood into Bunker Hill.

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I grew up in the Bunker Hill neighborhood during the 50's, 60's, and up until 1973. At that point the city of Los Angeles ordered that we all abandon our homes. We were promised that affordable housing would be built so we could return and live in a better environment. For the next 30 years or so, I would visit the site of my old home which was on Beaudry and Colton streets. Of course the neighborhood was vacant and abandoned for about 30 years due to mismanagement by the city/CRA. Eventually, the luxurious Bunker Hill Towers were built that no one could possibly afford and there now sits a high school where my home used to be that took decades to built also due to mismanagement by the CRA/city. There has hardly been a mention of the thousands of people that were displaced like homeless animals. The former residents did not benefit in any way. Besides, they were only minorities living in a slum. It sickens me when I pass through the old Bunker Hill neighborhood. It always appears totally lifeless.