Before the 110 Freeway, Figueroa Street Ran Through These Tunnels

Two-way traffic once ran through the Figueroa Street Tunnels, now part of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Driving through the Figueroa Street Tunnels might be one of L.A.'s most dramatic freeway experiences. As you plunge through the first Art Deco portal, the downtown skyline recedes in your rear-view mirror. A minute later, leaving the last of the four bores, you enter the world of the Arroyo Seco Parkway: sycamore trees, sweeping curves, and arched bridges.

The tunnels weren't always part of the state freeway system. Built between 1930 and 1936 by the city of Los Angeles, they originally carried Figueroa Street through the rugged terrain of Elysian Park. Two lanes traveled in either direction, separated by white double stripes. Pedestrians were welcome, if not expected; a single five-foot sidewalk (since removed) ran alongside the forty-foot wide roadway.

Designed by municipal engineer Merrill Butler1, the tunnels bore the aesthetic flourishes that distinguished Butler's more-celebrated Los Angeles River bridges. Art Deco patterns and ornamental street lamps adorned the concrete faces of the portals and retaining walls. Inside, reflective tiles reinforced a sense of motion. And above each of the eight portals, a stylized version of the Los Angeles city seal was cast in concrete.

Aesthetic considerations aside, the tunnels were first and foremost a traffic relief measure, the key part of a program to widen and extend Figueroa Street between downtown and Pasadena. (The grade-separated intersection of Temple and Figueroa is another legacy of this program.) Previously, the principal route north of downtown had been North Broadway, which often choked with traffic where it crossed the Los Angeles River. The four tunnels represented a shortcut around North Broadway and through Elysian Park, whose southeastern flank was sacrificed in the name of traffic flow.

Footsore: L.A.'s Sidewalk Mess Needs Better Ideas

It's no secret to anybody who is a pedestrian (and that would be all of us) that Los Angeles is a crumbling town. The decomposition of its sidewalks -- among other things -- has passed the tipping point and reached a tripping point. The city already pays $3 million to $5 million a year settling "trip and fall" lawsuits caused by particularly dangerous sidewalks.

The state of the city's walkways makes laughable the claim that Los Angeles is about to become one of the nation's most "walkable" cities.

Walkable, sure ... but only if you carefully pick your route and time of day. Otherwise, you're picking your way across heaved concrete slabs, dodging the open wells of street trees (thanks for the shade), or taking an ill-lighted path into the creepy unknown after dark. For those of us not young, not nimble, and not clear of vision -- and that's a lot of us -- there are miles of treacherous Los Angeles hardscape to be crossed on foot.

On Hollywood Boulevard, a Myth Becomes Reality

Gaudy Los Angeles can be a badly disappointing town. For its critics, wrote William A. McClung, the city is "a strange place, reached by a journey, enjoyed, railed against, and ultimately rejected." Even before Mike Davis bleakly ordered the city's apocalypses in "Ecology of Fear," the snarky authors of the travel guide "L.A. Bizarro!" wrote, "Any reasonably intelligent American knows that Los Angeles is a rotten, stinking dump."

Dump it is from time to time and a place where even the tinsel is simulated (Universal CityWalk comes to mind). The tourist fantasies of Hollywood and Vine turn out to be clip joints. The concrete in front of the Chinese Theater memorializes names you never heard of. And tours of the stars' homes take you past hedges behind which no star has lived since Gloria Swanson was driven off in her Hispano-Suiza.

Those of us here more or less permanently have become hardened both to the come ons and to the disappointments. We're pleased to define our lack of feeling as "sophistication."

That is, until the tourists reveal something else.

Are We Tall? Are We Flat? Ooze or Coagulate? What Should The Buildings of L.A. Say?

Peter Zumthor's proposed LACMA design | Photo: © Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, is asking some provocative questions about the overhauled design of the proposed replacement to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.

Both the former and the new concept for replacing LACMA's unloved, mid-1960s buildings are by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The first concept intruded on the footprint (and airspace) of the La Brea tar pits and their trove of paleontological specimens. The revised plan loops away from the pits and crosses over Wilshire Boulevard.

Hawthorne asks what Zumthor's flat, sinuous blob of a design says about Los Angeles. He wonders if Zumthor's intersection of place and structure is missing the point.

"(M)y feelings about Zumthor's LACMA have grown more complicated," he wrote in his Critic's Notebook recently. "The more I think about the plan's newly attenuated form, stretched like a piece of black bubble gum across Wilshire, the more I wonder if the architect's basic reading of Los Angeles could use an update."

Selling Your Town: Next Up, Simi Valley

I have a friend who lives in a small town where the beaches are like sugar and the sunsets are like fire. He likes his town for its sugary beaches and its fiery sunsets and its fine fishing and down home lifestyle, but mostly he likes it because few people know about it.

Not all my friends are so lucky. Just the other day, another friend in another beach town wrote, "Ok July 4th is over. I need the tourists to go home now. I'd like to grocery shop, get outta my driveway and be able to park at the beach. And no, I don't want to sit under the shade of someone's umbrella who I don't even know! Thank you. Good bye."

I bring these juxtaposed friends and towns up because last month the Simi Valley City Council approved a proposal by hoteliers to form the Simi Valley Tourism Marketing District. The name is pretty self-explanatory, but given this age when many clear things turn out to be unclear, let me briefly explain. Beginning July 1, the city of Simi Valley began collecting a two percent assessment on hotel room stays of less than 30 days. The city keeps one percent. The rest of the funds will be used by the Simi Valley Tourism Alliance, a private non-profit. Using this money the Simi Valley Tourism Alliance will attempt to trumpet Simi Valley's charms to the world -- the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Strathearn Historical Park & Museum, Skatelab Indoor Skatepark & Museum, the Santa Susana Depot & Museum, and Bottle Village.

Who's Reformed? Not the Legislature While Reform Bills Languish

We expect -- although experience argues against optimism -- that state legislators will be men and women of virtue. Realistically, they won't always be virtuous or even ethical. And so California has a system of laws to check unethical behavior before political corruption becomes endemic.

The system that checks corruption has failed. The quality of malfeasance in Sacramento has passed from reciprocal back scratching and pandering for campaign money to something uglier. The mess today includes bribery, political vendettas, globalized crime, and arms deals.

In recent polls, only 35 percent of voters approve of Sacramento lawmakers; 47 percent disapprove, largely since state Senators Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello), and Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) were caught up in widely publicized criminal investigations. (Wright has already been convicted.)

The investigations continue and may uncover additional criminal behavior, possibly by other members of the legislature.

Photos: When Trolley Tracks Ran Through Southland Beaches

A Pacific Electric trolley rolls down Redondo Beach in 1939. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Trolleys once rivaled the crashing surf in the soundscape of Southland beaches. Along much of the Southern California coast from Santa Monica to Redondo and from Long Beach to Newport, a red dot -- a distant Pacific Electric car -- would appear down the shore. As it neared, the click-clack of the wheels moving over the wooden ties, the squeal of steel on steel, and the monotonous clanging of the bell would temporarily overwhelm the Pacific's roar.

They might have been somewhat of a sonic nuisance (though no worse, perhaps, than automobile highways), but in the early twentieth century, trolleys were an essential transportation link between populated inland areas and the coast. Indeed, many beach cities were born of trolley lines.

The opening of Abbot Kinney's Venice of America coincided with the arrival of an electric car line. In the early days of Manhattan Beach, real estate sharks circled the seaside development's trolley station, waiting for prospective homebuyers to disembark. And one Orange County beach town so owed its existence to interurban trolley lines that it named itself after the region's preeminent trolley magnate, Henry Huntington.

Joblessness is No Longer 'Urgent,' But it's Still News

Three years into an alleged recovery from the great recession, the bad news about work just keeps coming. The paradox is that the worse the news gets, the less you read about it, which happens when a crisis starts to feel normal, when it slips from regular headlines of bad news to a permanent condition that gets no headlines at all. When was the last time you read a front-page story about racism or the pitfalls of capitalism? Like those things, the employment problem is spreading into an alarming amorphousness, with too many characters and plot lines to qualify as a news story. It doesn't have a narrative that can be followed on Twitter. Most damning of all, it isn't new, which means it isn't urgent. It just is.

The latest headline (such as it is) that caught my attention was that the group with the poorest prospects for employment these days are women between the ages of 45 and 54. That would be me. It's always sobering to realize you're part of an ill-fated statistic; it's like seeing yourself in a police lineup. Anyway, it made me think about my lifelong relationship to work. I always thought of "work" as solid but uninspired, something adults did to pay the bills and get by, buy a car and maybe take a modest vacation once a year. It was what my Uncle Wilbert did: he worked for the county as a janitor for close to fifty years, and retired on a decent pension. That was not going to be me.

From the time I started reading books, I saw myself as doing something to satisfy the demands of my imagination and growing expectations of the world as this great, possible, hospitable place that would always make room for whatever it was I was going to do, or be. Whatever that was, I would make money at it -- how could I not? How could I not be paid for being myself? I couldn't conceive of work as something separate from who I was.

I knew I was living in a new age. Work for my parents' generation had a demanding life of its own -- 4:30 a.m. shifts at the post office (if they were lucky), cleaning white people's houses, selling newspapers, transporting dead bodies, portering on a train, whatever was available and more or less respectable. Thriving and/or self-fulfillment came later, if at all. Expectations of bigger and better opportunities were tricky: you had to have them, but you had to be realistic at the same time. And there just was no downside to work. Employment for black people was (and still is) a cause of its own, which meant that securing work, especially full-time work that supported a family, was thriving in its own right. Self-fulfillment was nice, but superfluous.

I struggle with that idea. I wonder if I should swallow my expectations and go get a job at Petco, but even contemplating doing a faceless nine-to-five, not to mention a low-paying one that I haven't done since about 1985, makes me colossally depressed. I'd rather live on the ether of hope (and the occasional freelance job) that's sustained every black generation than to try to live on a dependable, but totally insufficient paycheck. That would be struggle on top of struggle. Sometimes I feel empowered by this choice, more often just I feel broke. At my gloomiest I feel like I've failed history, like I haven't lived up to my generational moment of finally breaking free of the more burdensome notion of work.

Years ago, during a visit I made to Vegas, my Uncle Wilbert asked me what I was doing with myself. Writing, I told him proudly, and gave him some details about why I thought it was important and resonant and all that. He nodded, but was unimpressed. "You need to get you a government job," he said. "Some security."

Maybe he was right. Not about the government job -- those are more or less gone, part of our new work condition. But I wouldn't have minded getting some security. If somebody my age, gender and color can attain that -- with or without a nine-to-five -- my job will feel more than done. And I can get on with full-time endeavor of being myself.

Stranger in a Strange Land: The Power of a Smile

Given our many glories, Ventura County is no stranger to tourists. We see them frequently, especially now in summer, driving erratically and slow as molasses, huddled close on street corners taking photos of everyday items like surf shops and movie posters, blocking restaurant doorways while staring at the menu as if it were comprised of runes.

Once I encountered a forty-something gentleman in downtown Ventura. Approaching on the sidewalk I could see from a distance he was a tourist, for he was scowling down at a guide book. He was also wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, something you do not see on every forty-something man. I did not think less of him for this. The ears made him look quite jaunty.

He was still scowling when he looked up at me and he looked a bit hesitant, frightened even -- it can be frightening to be stranger in a strange place -- but when he saw me the scowl dissolved into a valiant smile. That he addressed me with a spouting of English I couldn't come close to deciphering didn't matter. He kept smiling as we both jabbed at his guidebook as if it had buttons, until finally we both concluded he wanted to go to Ojai.

I bring this up because at this very moment the tables are turned. We are in Paris, my lovely wife and I, and as anyone who has ever looked at an Atlas knows, Paris is not in Ventura County. And so we take pictures of the doors of people's homes -- the doorknob quaintly smack dab in the center -- and I drive like molasses while the gears of our matchbox size car clatter and scream as I try to reacquaint myself with zee stick shift and we (inadvertently) block the crossing at street corners, the two of us bent to a crumpled map (How can you lose sight of something as grand as the Eiffel Tower? I am telling you, you can).

A Guide for the Politically Perplexed in L.A. County

Who Does What?
| Photo: MS Images

Every so often, I get a call from a journalist working on a story that needs some local government context. In the welter of communities, cities, county agencies, and special districts that blanket the political landscape of Los Angeles, it's easy to mistake who does what and even why.

Some calls start from a basic misunderstanding of political geography. So, what are we talking about when we describe places as incorporated, unincorporated, "contract city," or "county territory?"

To begin with, the city of Los Angeles is not the same political entity as the county of Los Angeles. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is not the mayor of all the cities in Los Angeles County (much to his relief).

On the other hand, County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has been pleased to call himself the Mayor of the County of Los Angeles whenever he's rotated into the leadership of the County Board of Supervisors. But there is no "mayor" of the county with authority over cities (to Mike's dismay, I think).