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19. Henry Huntington's good idea

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In our collective, myth drunk memory of Los Angeles, Henry Huntington is the robber baron who was better than most. Who bequeathed his library and garden to a grateful (though distracted) citizenry. And, vaguely now, he built a railroad and made it run. As the song goes, it raced against time. Until, around 1925, time ran out.

Huntington had impeccable railroad credentials, being the nephew and heir of Collis Huntington "? a truly scary robber baron, one of the creators in 1869 of the transcontinental railroad, and manipulator of the Southern Pacific Railroad and much of late 19th century California. But Huntington wasn't a railroad man. Rail was a means. Real wealth was real estate.

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By 1903, Huntington was southern California's largest landowner. Much of the San Gabriel Valley was under his control. He also controlled the region's two commuter rail systems. But he didn't sell trolley tickets; he sold house lots and electricity. Neither the Los Angeles Railway (yellow cars) nor the Pacific Electric Railway (red cars) paid a dividend. The PE, in fact, never more than broke even.

Huntington extended rails and power lines into the miles of empty land he owned in order to bring the buyers there. He conjured places to live from anonymous stretches of plain and bluff by pitching the essential myths of Los Angeles "? sunshine, oranges, middle-class ease, and all the rest.

Huntington's eye was always on the end of the tracks and what he sold there. Yellow cars (in the city) and red cars (in the surrounding countryside) went where Huntington's empty acres lay. The tracks passed much more, and development inevitably built up along them, but Huntington's interests always determined the end of the line.

He got to the end of the line by building fast. Nearly all of the lines were built at grade (level with the street surface). Fine when connecting downtown to suburban villages with pastures and farms in between. A mess when, as the 1920s boomed, the spaces in between downtown and Huntington-built suburbs filled with more moderately dense housing that had no quick access to Huntington's trolleys.

By the end of the 1920s, the poorly maintained system was a fading memorial to Huntington's salesmanship and not a means for most Angeleños to get where they really wanted to go. They drove instead.

Huntington "? along with the Chandler family and a few others "? personified the growth machine of early 20th century Los Angeles. The materialization of the machine was, at least at first, the rail line and the California bungalow. In the machine's later manifestation, from 1925 on, it was the limited-access highway and the tract house. Today, it's mass transit and the condo tower.

But unlike the growth machine's earlier manifestations, transit and the tower are badly disconnected.

Rail transit today, just as in Henry Huntington's time, needs to be built cheaply. To keep costs down, it's built on surviving rights-of-way that often reflect speculative real estate deals from a hundred years ago. It's built at grade. But that also constrains where rails can go. (At-grade construction builds in all the conflicts with the street grid that plagued Huntington's successors after 1920.)

Bus transit is rail's competitor "? more flexible, capable of going where the riders are and where they might be in the future, easily expandable on the street grid. But intersecting bus lines are complicated organizationally. Hard to make pervasive and at service levels that are really useful. Buses have lots of unionized drivers and mechanics. Buses are the form of transit least likely to be used by middle-class car owners, who regard them as uncomfortable and menacing.

Bus transit has its own funding problems because of its lack of charisma and a politically effective constituency. There is no juice in buses. No consultants, construction contractors, lawyers, and photo opportunities to benefit a political career.

But the greater disconnect is the distance between usable transit and the neighborhoods where higher density housing will be built as the result of a campaign of development deregulation gaining traction at the state, regional, and local levels. The disconnect between transit and density is so painfully obvious that Transit Oriented Development is becoming as suspect as the old-time sales pitch of "easy living in the suburbs." A TOD tower doesn't guarantee that transit in any useable form will be there when the units are sold, even less that anyone living there will use transit when it finally arrives.

Huntington turned emptiness into moderate density by building electrified transit before he built the houses. He had the right idea. But today's growth machine "? a shrunken and less generous descendant of Huntington's "? knows how impossible that is. Transit in L.A. is hobbled by politics and circumstance, incapable of being really useful except when rolled out, with a nudge and wink, to justify new freedoms for the growth machine.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Orange County Archives. It was used under Creative Commons license.

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