For a few days in late November 1937, it was the Southland's greatest attraction -- a landslide in slow motion, 1.5 million tons of an Elysian Park hillside creeping toward the Los Angeles River bed. Cracks became crevasses as a half-moon-shaped landmass near Point Grand View sank inch-by-inch over the course of several weeks. Below, the slope crept across Riverside Drive and toward a strip of homes and shops. Sensational news reports, printed in papers and broadcast on radio nationwide, described it as a "moving mountain," and tourists came from afar to witness the geologic curiosity. One Oklahoma City police officer took a leave of absence to watch the slide. Two boys hopped freight trains from New York to see it. Some 10,000 sightseers came by the hour. Spectators pressed against police barricades along Riverside Drive, and enterprising vendors worked the throng like a baseball game, hawking peanuts, popcorn, and soda. Some even sold field glasses.
Everyone acknowledged that it was a sight to behold, but no one could agree on its cause. Some blamed seepage from the Buena Vista Reservoir atop the hill, or perhaps intake tunnels bored in 1885. Others speculated, somewhat implausibly, that pent-up gas pressure from an underground oil field had dislodged the hillside. Whatever the proximate cause, the landslide represented one episode in a continuing process of erosion as, over millennia, the Los Angeles River undercut the base of the Elysian Hills. Eventually, hillsides would give way as their slopes became too steep -- a condition that construction of Riverside Drive might have exacerbated. What made this landslide such an attraction was its seemingly orderly nature. A violent process had been reduced to a crawl.
Order, however, suddenly turned to chaos on the night of Friday, November 26. At 10:35 p.m., the moving mountain roared downslope. Lights flickered and died as the landslide snapped transmission towers carrying 110,000-volt electric lines. Though, remarkably, no one died, the landslide was a genuine disaster. A 24-inch water main was severed, the Riverside Drive viaduct lay crushed beneath the hillside, and residents and shop owners were displaced as the city condemned several properties. And yet the slide -- which more or less stabilized after its violent climax -- continued to attract sightseers. The next day, an estimated crowd of 500,000 converged on the site, munching on popcorn and hoping the mountain would move again.
The First Street-Beverly Boulevard Viaduct over Glendale Boulevard is something of an infrastructural anomaly -- a 900-foot bridge better suited for a freeway interchange than an intersection of mere surface streets. And yet its massive scale answered several practical traffic problems at the site. Before the viaduct's construction in 1940-42, no fewer than six streets and four trolley tracks converged at a complicated crossroads. Two of the roads, First Street and Beverly Boulevard, dropped suddenly from higher ground into an ancient, paved-over arroyo. When it opened in September 1942, the viaduct directly linked First with Beverly, allowing east-west traffic to soar over the stream channel and twisted intersection altogether.
The reinforced-concrete bridge -- built with funding from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration -- does bear more than a superficial resemblance to freeway architecture. In ornamentation, its design by Ralph W. Stewart represents a transitional form between the Art Deco flourishes of Merrill Butler's Sixth Street Bridge (1932) and the naked brutalism of modern freeway structures. Blank concrete faces below the bridge's deck give way to decorative, rectangle-windowed balustrades above. Geometric patterns adorn the bridge's pylons, and, before standard streetlights replaced them, ornate, almost-rococo electroliers hung from fluted light poles.
The viaduct also boasts common ancestry with Los Angeles' earliest freeways. As Auto Club historian Matt Roth recounts in "Concrete Utopia" (available online through the USC Digital Library), it was part of a larger program among city traffic engineers to overcome traffic congestion through new technologies like grade-separations and limited-access roads. In places, state-funded projects incorporated these earlier city efforts into modern freeways. The Arroyo Seco Parkway (CA-110), for example, passes beneath grade separations built for Figueroa Street, and a stretch of the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) were born as limited-access Ramona Boulevard.
The viaduct linking First with Beverly nearly became part of a modern highway itself. In 1936 the city planning commission considered a plan to upgrade First Street into a "semi-freeway" between Glendale Boulevard and downtown. Later, city and state engineers considered routing the Hollywood Freeway (US-101) south of its eventual location -- a route that might have co-opted the viaduct as a freeway overpass. But First Street never graduated beyond the level of a humble surface road, and the viaduct remains a remnant of past transportation visions. "It still stands there today," Roth writes, "an isolated piece of freeway technology, grotesquely out of scale with its surroundings, awaiting the linkages that never came."
King of the road? Since 1965, the pedestrian rather than the private automobile has reigned over a three-block stretch of downtown Santa Monica. Today, the Third Street Promenade is one of the Southland's best-known examples of a public space that prioritizes pedestrians over cars.
But while it's tempting to view the Promenade as a precursor to complete-streets initiatives like Bringing Back Broadway and the Sunset Triangle Plaza, the bayside city's pedestrian mall is actually a legacy of the same "urban renewal" impulse that such initiatives seek to correct.
Across the nation, planners in the 1950s and '60s weren't sure how to stanch the flow of commerce from central business districts to more automobile-friendly suburbs. Many saw traffic congestion as the main culprit, and one response was to turn downtown streets over to the automobile completely, relegating foot traffic to skybridges, pedways, and other dedicated pedestrian corridors. In Los Angeles, no less a figure than J. Edward Martin of architectural firm AC Martin Partners floated such an idea in a 1959 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "If we take the pedestrian off the streets and separate them from the automobiles," he said, "we could increase our traffic circulation 100%."
Pioneered by Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1959, pedestrian malls represented the opposite approach to the same perceived problem. Hoping to woo customers back to their central business districts with "traffic-free shopping," dozens of U.S. cities closed their main shopping corridors to vehicles and then redesigned the streetscapes to mimic the indoor malls of the suburbs. Though outwardly designed for the pedestrian, such urban retrofits upended the old model of the street as a shared public space. They also often entailed massive new parking garages and surface lots, sapping the vitality of adjacent streets.
In Santa Monica, merchants led by Chamber of Commerce president and J.C. Penney general manager Ernest Gulsrud first proposed closing Third Street to cars in 1959. Third Street had long been the city's main commercial strip, but by the late 1950s it was struggling to compete with the newer regional shopping centers, which offered easy freeway access and sprawling blacktop parking lots. Inspired by Kalamazoo's example, a committee of Santa Monica merchants called for a three-block pedestrian mall along Third Street between Broadway and Wilshire.
Their plan was controversial. Although 65 percent of merchants along the proposed mall supported it, property owners were initially cool to the idea, and Ralphs, which operated a supermarket at Third and Wilshire, challenged the plan's constitutionality in court. But the city council pledged its support, and by 1965 the plan had overcome all its legal and political obstacles. On April 22, a three-minute blast of car horns marked the beginning of construction. Workers tore up Third Street's asphalt roadway and replaced it with planters, reflecting pools, trees, and other landscape elements designed by Charles Luckman and Associates. Construction cost $700,000, not including another $800,000 spent on updated facades and store modernizations. On November 8, Third Street reopened -- to pedestrians only -- as the Santa Monica Mall.
At first, the pedestrian mall did lure shoppers back to Third Street, but it ultimately failed to arrest the decline of Santa Monica's business district. The addition of new garages on Second and Fourth streets only compounded problems by killing street life in the surrounding neighborhood, and the 1980 opening of the indoor Santa Monica Place shopping center at the mall's southern end accelerated the exodus of shoppers and retailers. By the mid-decade, discount shops and vacant storefronts outnumbered thriving businesses.
The Santa Monica Mall's struggles were anything but atypical. Across the U.S., pedestrian malls installed in the 1960s and '70s to combat "urban blight" fell on hard times in the '80s and '90s. (A 2013 study pegged their success rate at 11 percent.) Many have since reopened to automobile traffic -- including former pedestrian malls in Burbank, Oxnard, and Pomona.
The Santa Monica Mall might have met the same fate, but in 1987 the city opted to double down on the pedestrian-oriented concept. A two-year, $10-million renovation addressed many of the mall's shortcomings: a lack of entertainment and dining options and a design that seemed to thwart rather than encourage the flow of foot traffic down the street and into stores.
The update by San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group did reflect some ambivalence about shutting out cars completely. When the mall reopened September 16, 1989, as the Third Street Promenade, a twenty-foot roadway snaked down its center, flanked by thirty-foot sidewalks. But though autos did initially share the Promenade during off-peak hours, the renovated mall exceeded all expectations, and swollen crowds of shoppers, diners, and moviegoers soon made vehicular traffic impractical. Bollards went up at the Promenade's entrances to keep Third Street car-free. They remain in place to this day.
It's easy enough to locate downtown Los Angeles. On a map, the name hovers over a compact urban street grid. In a car, it's where most of the city's freeways lead. From a plane, it's visible as a dense cluster of modern skyscrapers and older commercial buildings.
But even if locating it is a simple matter, downtown L.A. resists easy definition and delineation. Does it include Chinatown? The Arts District? Does downtown sprawl across the 110 freeway, or do those high-rises occupy a distinct district known as City West?
Perhaps we can trace the uncertainty surrounding downtown to the term's origins as a New York import.
When it originated there in the early 1800s, downtown referred to the lower or southern end of Manhattan. (Uptown was northern or upper Manhattan.) As Robert Fogelson recounts in his 2001 history "Downtown: Its Rise and Fall," the term's meaning eventually came unmoored from simple polar orientation. By the 1850s downtown referred not just to lower Manhattan as a specific geographic place but also to the city's business community more generally. Soon cities across the United States were adopting the term for their own central business districts.
And when it arrived in Los Angeles, which lacked Manhattan's strong north-south polar axis, Angelenos weren't quite sure how to map the new term onto the city's existing geography.
At first, they used downtown almost exclusively as an adjective or an adverb referring to the city's commercial center, not as a noun. There was no downtown Los Angeles per se, but by the late 1870s there were "downtown hotels" and "downtown railroad offices", and Angelenos could "walk downtown" in the direction of such businesses.
The precise geographic location of downtown, however, was anything but fixed.
In 1887, "downtown businesses" occupied the city's three biggest commercial buildings -- the Temple, Baker, and Downey blocks -- as well as nearby storefronts along North Main Street. Within a decade, "downtown businesses" had migrated several blocks to the south and west. The Southern Pacific's downtown office, for example, had moved from the Baker Block on Main just north of Temple to 144 S. Spring by 1895. The Union Pacific had relocated from 236 N. Main to 229 S. Spring, and several smaller railroads occupied the brand-new Bradbury Block at 2nd and Broadway.
For a time, Angelenos also adopted downtown's counterpart, uptown, to refer to businesses located near but not in the downtown core. The Bisbee-Fishburn door and window company, for instance, opened an "uptown office" at Ninth and Main to supplement business at its main office at Washington and Alameda.
Meanwhile, locations we'd almost certainly identify as downtown today were excluded from its scope. In 1902, the Los Angeles Herald apologized for misidentifying a hotel as "downtown." It was the Bellevue Terrace Hotel at Figueroa and Sixth.
Eventually, as the city sprawled far into the surrounding countryside, it became useful to distinguish between a downtown -- a noun referring to a fixed place -- and the city's outlying areas. Hence downtown Los Angeles was born. The term made its first appearance in the Herald in 1906 and in the Times three years later.
But even as downtown Los Angeles gained common currency, it lacked legal definition.
The city council came close to drawing official boundaries in 1920, when it defined the Los Angeles "business district" as an irregular pentagon-shaped area bounded by Sunset on the north, San Pedro Avenue on the northeast, Central on the east, Pico on the south, and Georgia, Bixel, and Boylston on the west. It declined, however, to use the term downtown.
In the late 1950s, when city planners began eyeing L.A.'s downtown area for redevelopment, they adopted a new, synonymous term: "Central City." On official maps, four existing or planned freeways bounded the Central City: the Hollywood (101), Harbor (110), and Santa Monica (10), as well as the unbuilt Industrial Freeway that would have sliced through the city's wholesale and industrial districts.
Today, a slightly altered Central City survives on planners' maps, but the term has never supplanted downtown in everyday conversation. Its borders, meanwhile, stop short of embracing all that Los Angeles generally considers downtown -- the Arts District lies beyond Central City's eastern border along Alameda. Likewise, the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's official boundaries fail to definitively answer where downtown begins and ends, as they exclude quintessential downtown locales like Little Tokyo and Union Station.
Defining and delineating downtown Los Angeles, then, remains an uncertain task. Even more uncertain -- where is uptown Los Angeles today?
If Instagram had been around in 1877, Dodger Stadium would not have been the world's second most geo-tagged site -- a distinction it attained in 2014. Not an inning of baseball had yet been played on the site, a steep hill and gaping ravine unaltered by mechanized grading equipment. Wild scrub brush rather than manicured Bermuda grass carpeted the ground. No life-sized bobble-head figures populated the upper deck.
But at least one of the ballpark's chief attractions was already present. Long before earthmovers carved Dodger Stadium's amphitheater into its northern flank, Mount Lookout (elevation: 726 ft.) was renowned for its sweeping views. To the south, the growing city of Los Angeles sprawled into the surrounding countryside. To the north, hazy mountain ranges floated on the horizon.
Sometime in late 1876 or early 1877, an artist named Eli Sheldon Glover scampered up Mount Lookout to capture those sights. His drawing became one of L.A.'s earliest birdseye city views. The Daily Star described Glover's vantage point:
The drawing was executed from a point which presents a beautiful view of Los Angeles proper and the delightful and growing suburbs of East and West Los Angeles [present-day Lincoln Heights and University Park, respectively]. On the whole, it presents a truthful picture of the city looking south from the hill north of town, with the ocean and intervening objects in clear prospective [sic].
Six years later, hopeful that the city would transform it into a public park, the Los Angeles Herald heaped praise upon the "grand and lofty hill":
No one who has not ascended this hill has any idea of the beauty and comprehensiveness of the scene that is spread out before the vision of the beholder. This hill, one of the highest in the city limits, towers above all the hills towards the sea, and its summit is a point where a magnificent view can be obtained by anyone who takes the trouble to ascend by either of the two trails which lead to the top....At the summit the view is wide-spread and grand. In addition to the distant and near places seen during the ascent...the four cemeteries, almost the entire city, the ocean, a glimpse of Anaheim, Azusa, Vernon, Florence, Wilmington, Compton, with the dark eucalyptus groves below the city are plainly in sight...To the North, a glimpse is obtained of some fine ranches in the hills, but the intervening hills partially obstruct the view.
Though Dodger Stadium's construction eventually shaved some elevation off its summit, the truncated hill remains one of the best places to gaze at the downtown Los Angeles skyline. A 2013 renovation by Mia Lehrer and Associates enhanced those city views, framing them between palm trees and other landscaping. Today, Dodger fans -- Instagram users or otherwise -- can stand outside the top deck and recall the Herald's description of the site: "a beautiful mount of vision for those who delight in scenes of beauty."
Some looked at the arid hills of Los Angeles and saw worthless land. Prudent Beaudry gazed up at them and envisioned prime real estate.
In 1867 Beaudry -- a French Canadian immigrant who would later serve as mayor -- began snapping up hilltop parcels on the cheap from sellers who didn't share his vision. Soon he'd built an elaborate system of reservoirs, iron pipes, and steam pumps to irrigate the sun-baked hills. Suddenly land he'd bought for $1,500 was worth twenty, thirty times as much.
To advertise the potential of his hilltop tracts, in the early 1870s he transformed two barren knolls into Bellevue Terrace and Beaudry Park -- Edenic landscapes that, though privately owned, welcomed the public to visit. Here, the fragrance of orange blossoms mingled with that of eucalyptus leaves. Paths meandered through vineyards and fruit orchards. And ocean views dissolved into the horizon.
Vistas were certainly the highlight of Bellevue Terrace, if its Canadian French name is any indication. Perched atop a 70-foot hill that no longer exists (it's the site of the Central Library today), this 6.5-acre garden overlooked the growing city below and the pastoral countryside beyond. Clear days offered glimpses of the Pacific. But there were spectacles inside the garden, too. High-pressure hoses cast water high into the air -- "a refreshing sight," in the words of a Los Angeles Herald scribe. And within the garden's eucalyptus-lined perimeter, a grove of some 500 fruit-bearing orange and lime trees stood in an orderly grid. The Austrian prince and naturalist Ludwig Salvator visited in 1876 and left thoroughly enchanted, describing Bellevue Terrace as "a perfect jewel."
Further west was Beaudry Park. The eight-acre private reserve rose above the canyon that today carries Sunset Boulevard between the city's downtown and Echo Park districts. Here Beaudry's landscape gardener, Francis Tamiet, planted a veritable forest of fruit and ornamental trees: 475 oranges, 2,600 Mexican limes, 1,200 gums, 1,000 cypresses, and 100 Monterey pines. Amid all this horticulture, wild nature managed to thrive -- in 1878, the Herald reported the appearance of "a splendid gray fox from the mountains." "His tail is a sight worth climbing the height to see," it added.
Bellevue Terrace and Beaudry Park might have become crown jewels of Los Angeles' parks system, but Los Angeles in the 1870s possessed only the rudiments of an organized public parks movement. With orange groves, vineyards, open pasture, and rugged mountains surrounding the city, perhaps Angelenos felt little pressure to set aside open space for retreat and recreation. Even within the city, greenery abounded. Visitors were welcome to stroll through lushly landscaped residential yards, as well as private, commercial resorts like Washington Gardens or City Gardens. (See USC sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo's new book, "Paradise Transplanted" for more on that.) When booming development finally convinced the city that it needed municipally owned parks, it turned to its leftover, marginal lands -- marshy depressions, defunct reservoirs, and rugged hillsides.
Ultimately, Beaudry placed his two gardens on the market soon after he'd liquidated the surrounding real estate tracts. In 1881 the state purchased Bellevue Terrace for the site of the California Branch State Normal School, a teaching college that eventually became UCLA. When the Los Angeles Central Library replaced the college in 1926, construction crews graded the hill out of existence. Beaudry's Park, meanwhile, was purchased in 1883 by the Sisters of Charity. On that site (now occupied by The Elysian apartment building and Holy Hill Community Church) the sisters placed their new infirmary, repurposing Beaudry's fruit trees and cypresses into a soothing backdrop for their patients.
There are greasy spoons, and then there was The Oil Can. Located on Whittier Boulevard in Montebello, this tiny diner mimicked the shape of the cans once used to lubricate machinery, complete with a giant handle and a spout that towered above the building's domed roof.
Its oil can shape may have been unique among restaurants, but this eccentric building does fall squarely within an architectural tradition inspired by Southern California's embrace of the automobile in the 1920s: programmatic or mimetic architecture. Built along major automobile routes, these eye-catching structures attracting passing motorists with their unusual forms. In essence, the buildings acted as their own signage. Some resembled food items (Randy's Donuts), others pieces of clothing (the Brown Derby), and some everyday items like an oil can.
Montebello's Whittier Boulevard was home to several examples of programmatic architecture in the 1920s and '30s, but as the bus-driving historians of Esotouric note, none was as fitting as The Oil Can. The discovery of an underground oil field in 1917 had brought fortune to the town and transformed its once graceful hills ("Montebello" is Italian for "beautiful mountain") into a forest of wooden derricks.
Sunset may have been its name, but the boulevard's grand opening on May 14, 1904, marked the dawning of a new age in Los Angeles. A parade of a dozen or so automobiles -- accompanied by horse-drawn carriages, tally-hos, and electric rail cars -- puttered over the freshly macadamized roadway that now connected Los Angeles with the then-independent city of Hollywood. Crowds of well-wishers gathered along the route. Buildings displayed patriotic bunting.
The idea of a Sunset Boulevard had been around since 1887. As originally conceived, it would have run west from the Los Angeles city limits to the sea, connecting several of the towns that sprang up during the Southland's great real estate boom of the 1880s. But while some isolated segments were soon built (notably a stretch through the short-lived boomtown of Sunset, possibly the source of the road's name) a crucial link remained missing: the section between downtown Los Angeles and the rapidly growing suburb of Hollywood.
Had one of Tomorrowland's flying saucers gone missing? When the Anaheim Convention Center's arena opened in the summer of 1967, it looked as if a spacecraft from another world had touched down directly opposite Katella Avenue from Disneyland.
Designed by Los Angeles-based architects Adrian Wilson and Associates, the Space Age arena cut a striking figure. Two 200-ton steel arches held up its concrete shell dome. When viewed from the proper angle, the arches seemed to spell out the letter "A." Inside, project architect Craig Bullock boasted, the circular arrangement of the auditorium around an elliptical floor plan provided more intimate views from the 9,100 olive green, tan, and orange plastic seats.
In its early years, the multipurpose arena hosted circuses, a Richard Nixon political rally, boxing matches, and numerous musical performances. Days after the convention center's formal dedication on July 12, 1967, The Doors played to a capacity crowd under the arena's concrete shell. Months later, the Anaheim Amigos of the newly formed American Basketball Association moved in for their debut season, which turned out to also be their last, as average crowds of 500 forced the team to relocate the next year to Los Angeles.
Some streets did once mark L.A.'s western city limit. Most notably, West Boulevard's name dates to 1915, when the city's annexation of the Palms district made the street the city's western boundary. And Hoover Street runs along the westernmost limit of L.A.'s original pueblo lands. Until 1892, much of Hoover Street bore a different name: West Boundary Street.
But Western Avenue never did define the city's western boundary, as a brief glance at a map of Los Angeles annexations confirms. On April 1, 1896, the Los Angeles city limit lay a mile and a half to the east. The following day, as Los Angeles absorbed its so-called Western Addition, the city limit jumped far over Western Avenue, landing a half-mile to the west.