The Lost Canals of Venice of America [Expanded]

A gondolier rows through one of Venice of America's original canals, now a paved roadway. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Secreted away from the hustle and bustle of the famous boardwalk, the picturesque canals of Venice, California, are one of the seaside community's hidden charms. But in Venice's early years, the canals that survive today were only a sideshow. The main attraction -- the original canals of Abbot Kinney's Venice of America -- are lost to history, long ago filled in and now disguised as residential streets.

The Lost Hills of Downtown Los Angeles [Expanded]

Excavation of Fort Moore Hill, 1949. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA.

In 1912, Los Angeles considered an audacious plan to reshape its topography. A group calling itself the Bunker Hill Razing and Regrading Association proposed to pump water out of the Pacific Ocean, pipe it 20 miles to the city center, and spray high-pressure jets of brine against a ridge of hills to the immediate northwest of downtown Los Angeles. In all, the project would sluice away some 20 million cubic yards of shale and sandstone that Angelenos knew as Bunker, Fort Moore, and Normal hills.

The city once prized these hills for their commanding heights. Atop them, 19th-century civic leaders placed courthouses and colleges, which floated above the city and dominated the skyline. Developers took advantage of the hilltop vistas, transforming the once-barren summits into fashionable neighborhoods.

In the eyes of 20th-century business interests and civic leaders, however, the hills stood in the way of progress.

Suburbs like Hollywood and Colegrove boomed on the plains to the city's northwest, but the hills made these new towns difficult to reach from downtown by streetcar. Because they could not scale the hills' steep eastern faces, the trolleys circled around the hills, creating bottlenecks on the few routes out of downtown. At first, the city carved deep road cuts and bored tunnels into the hills to relieve congestion, but regrading offered a more comprehensive solution.

Traffic relief was not the only justification. Regrading offered the prospect of 181 acres of new, vacant real estate to a dense central business district that found itself cornered-in by the hills. The association also promised to remold the excavated earth into a series of dams and levees along the Los Angeles River, flooding the Elysian Valley (Frogtown) to form a recreational lake.

How Dana Cove Became Dana Point Harbor

Dana Point Harbor as a work in progress, circa 1971. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

If you've ever enjoyed a sail out of Dana Point Harbor or dinner at one of the marina's restaurants, thank the engineers. Before construction began in 1966, the site of the harbor was a shallow cove where water lapped against imposing cliffs and two promontories provided minimal protection from the open ocean. When seas were calm, ships could anchor at Dana Cove or send landing craft to its narrow strip of sandy beach. In fact, the cove and an adjacent promontory owed their names to sailor Richard Henry Dana, who collected cowhides there in 1835-36 and later wrote about his visit in "Two Years Before the Mast." When swells rolled in, however, the seafloor amplified the wave action. Surfers gave Dana Cove a nickname of their own: Killer Dana.

To transform Killer Dana into a place fit for kayaks, paddleboards, and Bermuda sloops, the Army Corps of Engineers designed two massive breakwaters that would enclose the cove and turn away its notorious swells. Construction crews began carrying out the engineers' plans in the summer of 1966. Workers dumped roughly one million tons of rock -- larger boulders hauled in by truck from a San Marcos quarry, smaller rocks transported by barge from Catalina -- into the water to form the harbor's breakwaters. They then sealed the gap between the two jetties with a cofferdam and pumped the cove dry. This allowed them to dig the marina's channels and build its concrete seawalls without the interference of seawater. (It also stranded the cove's abundant sea life. Fish and Game workers relocated abalone and lobsters from the old sea floor, but their old habitat was forever destroyed.)

Engineers also repurposed one of the cove's two rocky headlands, San Juan Point, as earthen fill for parking lots and picnic areas and carved three access roads into the cliff faces, connecting the harbor to the coast highway above. In all, construction crews moved three million cubic yards of earth. Major work continued well into the 1970s, but in 1971 the first boats sailed into their slips, and Dana Cove had become a harbor.

The Great Los Angeles Lion Hunt of 1892

From 'California Game Marked Down (1896).

Fourteen hounds, at least a dozen men on horseback, and many more on foot or in horse-drawn coaches, assembled near the Chavez Ravine brick factory on the morning of December 29, 1892. Holding the reins of a tally-ho was the hunt's organizer, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, the man who four years later would donate Griffith Park to the city and eleven years later would shoot his wife in the eye in a fit of drunken rage. Next to Griffith sat another self-styled colonel, Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, along with other members of the press -- all of them armed at Griffith's expense with rifles and ammunition.

This was no ordinary hunt, the target no mere fox. The hunting party had more fearsome prey in mind: two mountain lions seen days before prowling Elysian Park together.

The Southland was then a wilder place -- a few grizzly bears still clung to survival in the nearby mountains -- but the appearance of two large cougars so close to the city raised alarms. The Times fretted that the "California lions" would "pervert their eating the strollers on Lovers' Lane or occasional stray children." The Times' rival, the Los Angeles Herald, was no less sensationalistic. "Lions in the City," its headline cried.

In fact, the real reason for the hunt was that the lions (if there were actually two -- mountain lions are typically solitary creatures) had feasted upon one too many of Frank McCrea's pigs in the hills of Griffith's Rancho Los Feliz. As McCrea's landlord, Griffith was determined to eliminate the threat to his ranch's livestock.

Around 8:30 a.m. the party set off along the road from Chavez Ravine to Rancho Los Feliz. Griffith drove the lead coach but delegated leadership of the actual search to Charles Haskell. Haskell and his hunters followed the dogs into Elysian Park's eucalyptus grove and scanned the canopy above for treed cats. They raced up dry gullies and over chaparral ridges, through present-day Silver Lake and into Griffith's Rancho Los Feliz, searching the ground for lion tracks.

By the time the party trickled into the Los Feliz adobe for what was meant to be a celebratory lunch, the hunters were tired, hungry, and embarrassed. Their hounds had given chase to a pair of coyotes and disappeared into the hills of what is now Griffith Park. Meanwhile, the hunters found neither lion nor lion track. The Times reporter playfully named the elusive cats Evans and Sontag, after two famous fugitives in the San Joaquin Valley. Evans and Sontag the outlaws would eventually be captured; Evans and Sontag the cats never would. Mrs. McCrea fed Griffith and the hunters anyway, serving a feast of buttered biscuits, olives, preserves, warm pie, coffee, and roasted pig.

Photos: When the Red Car Rolled Through Orange County

A trolley car along the Pacific Electric's Newport-Balboa Line. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

How important was the Pacific Electric's arrival to Orange County? When its red cars first rolled into Pacific City in 1904, a small beachside community renamed itself after the railway's owner. We know it today as Huntington Beach. But Henry Huntington's influence was felt far beyond the coastal settlements. His railway served as a catalyst for real estate development all along its three intra-county lines that pierced the Orange Curtain. A new line to the county seat, Santa Ana, gave rise to the towns of Stanton and Cypress. The extension of the Whittier line to Yorba Linda spurred the early growth of Brea (then known as Randolph). Later, the railway's Santa Ana line would become one of its most successful, as its straight, diagonal path across the Los Angeles Basin provided a more direct route between Los Angeles and Orange counties than the highways that meandered from town to town. Nearly 2.5 million passengers rode that line in 1945. But the Orange County's red cars ultimately suffered the same fate as the rest of the system, which after World War II suffered from aging equipment and a steep decline in ridership. Regular passenger rail service to Orange County ended in 1950.

This Was L.A. Baseball in the 1880s

The Los Angeles Baseball Club, circa 1884. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection

The Los Angeles Dodgers occasionally don so-called throwback uniforms with retro designs that honor the team's history. When they do, they never want for flamboyant options. There's the 1944 outfit worn by their Brooklyn forebears during night games, cut from powder-blue satin so that it would shimmer under the artificial lights. There's the uniform from Brooklyn's 1937 season when, for one year, the Dodgers inexplicably abandoned their signature blue for green.

Los Angeles' early baseball history provides another option -- if only the Dodgers could muster the sartorial courage.

The semi-professional Los Angeles Base Ball Club of the mid 1880s sported uniforms whose distinctly western accents set them apart from the outfits worn by East Coast teams. Some elements were standard issue, of course. Teams everywhere wore knickerbockers that gave way at the knee to often-colorful stockings. But the Los Angeles club's lacy tunics and cowboy-style neckerchiefs seemed to reflect the team's pride in its home city and its western roots.

And why shouldn't they? When the Los Angeles nine took the field at the Sixth Street baseball grounds (the current site of downtown's Aon Tower and Pegasus Apartments) to face off against teams from Colton or San Francisco, they represented their home city in a way that teams in today's era of free agency can't. When the major-league Louisville Colonels barnstormed through Southern California in the winter of 1886 or the Philadelphia Athletics in 1887, the Los Angeles club's uniforms would have instantly announced their local allegiance.

But the team's clothing wasn't all that challenged national norms. So did its multicultural roster. Whereas much of organized baseball in the eastern U.S. excluded nonwhite players at the time, teams in California -- which after all had been American for less than half a century -- were much more likely to feature white players sharing the diamond with teammates of Mexican descent. Among them was one "A. Solano" (top-left in the above photo) who was quite possibly Alfredo Solano, a civil engineer, surveyor, and charter member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. A. Solano spent several years at shortstop and third base for Los Angeles between 1884 and 1886. By the late 1880s he no longer fielded a position, but his name frequently appeared in box scores as umpire.

The Solano name continues to resound with L.A. baseball history. Tucked between Dodger Stadium and Elysian Park is the quiet community of Solano Canyon, named for Alfredo's father Francisco Solano. For more than fifty years, from the age of Koufax to that of Kershaw, each roar of the Dodger Stadium crowd has echoed through a canyon that shares its name with a pioneer of Los Angeles baseball.

How the 15th Amendment Came to Los Angeles

Passed by Congress in 1869 and ratified by the states on Feb. 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited race-based restrictions on voting. Courtesy of the National Archives.

At four o'clock on the morning of April 12, 1870, dozens of explosions echoed through the dark and empty streets of Los Angeles. The booming noise might have started the town's horses and roused some of its residents, but this wasn't the sound of violence. It was the sound of freedom. The blasts were coming from the top of Bunker Hill, where some fifty people -- almost half the city's African-American population -- gathered to watch as anvils were shot into the air over and over again in celebration of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The festivities lasted well into the evening and even the following morning. That night, hundreds of white Angelenos joined the celebrants at a grand Ratification Ball that culminated in a midnight supper.

The amendment's ratification was certainly something worth celebrating. The Fourteenth Amendment had guaranteed citizenship since 1868, but California, as with most states, continued to deny African-Americans one of the fundamental rights of citizenship: the right to vote. Now -- over the objections of the Democratic politicians who dominated local politics and were generally hostile to civil rights -- black Angelenos possessed that right.

Or did they?

Just four days later, Lewis G. Green walked into the county courthouse and attempted to exercise the right so many Angelenos had just celebrated by registering to vote. The county clerk refused. The reason? Green was black.

Lewis Green's 1864 ad in the Los Angeles Star for his 'Hair Cutting Saloon'.The 43-year-old barber, who had helped organize the April 12 festivities, was also a leader within Los Angeles' African-American community. As Ralph E. Schaffer recounts in "Implementing the Fifteenth Amendment in California," it's likely that Green's attempt to register was an orchestrated moment of activism. For Green wasted no time in following one courageous step with another: he sued clerk Thomas Mott in county court, petitioning Judge Ignacio Sepulveda for a writ of mandamus that would compel Mott to add his name to the electoral roll.

Green's attorney, a young lawyer (and future USC founder) named Robert Widney, pointed to the plain language of the Fifteen Amendment. "The right of citizens of the United States to vote," it said, "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Mott and his attorneys with the firm of Glassell, Chapman, and Smith countered by citing state law. The 1849 California state constitution limited voting rights to while male citizens, and a state statute prescribed fines for any clerk who registered someone not eligible under the state constitution. In the absence of an act of Congress designed to compel cooperation by state officials, Mott's counsel argued, the newly passed amendment was simply a general constitutional principle that didn't supersede the state's restrictions on voting rights.

Sepulveda -- who, like Mott, was a leading figure within the local Democratic party -- agreed. On April 28 he denied Green's petition.

Congress soon intervened, however. Its Enforcement Act of 1870 answered the arguments of officials like Mott with specific penalties for noncompliance. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law on May 31.

Mott relented. On June 21 he inscribed Lewis Green's name on the Great Register of voters -- though not without protest. Next to the registration numbers of Green and other black voters, Mott apparently wrote "C" for "colored" and also noted that he had assented to their registration "per Fifteenth Amendment." Still, Green and his compatriots had finally secured their hard-won right to vote.

Of course, that right did not yet extend to L.A.'s entire African-American community. Its most noted philanthropist, Biddy Mason, still couldn't register, nor could another leading entrepreneur, Winnie Owens. In fact, half of black Los Angeles was still denied the franchise. Women -- regardless of their race -- would remain ineligible to vote in California for another fifty years.

Elysian Park's Incredible Moving Mountain of 1937

The slow-motion landslide blocked Riverside Drive where the Golden State (I-5) Freeway now passes Elysian Park. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

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.

At First and Beverly, A Freeway Bridge Out of Nowhere

The First-Beverly Viaduct over Glendale Boulevard in 1956. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.

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."

How Santa Monica's Third Street Became a Promenade

Third Street in 1970, when it was known as the Santa Monica Mall. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

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.