Stunted Progress: Belmont Tunnel and the Repurposing of a Faded Los Angeles Dream | KCET
Stunted Progress: Belmont Tunnel and the Repurposing of a Faded Los Angeles Dream
The small locked park, containing what remains of Belmont Tunnel and the Toluca Substation and Yard, is nestled in a deep pock between decay and so called progress. If ever there was a "valley of the ashes" in Los Angeles, it is this part of the Westlake neighborhood, centered underneath and around the Beverly Boulevard Viaduct.
It's only a mile from downtown, but when I visited on a recent Sunday afternoon I couldn't have felt farther away. There were old wooden lean-tos, trash-strewn sidewalks, and the steps I descend to reach the park were steep and covered in bright graffiti. I felt someone staring at me. There was a man, standing in the window of a decrepit apartment house. I looked at him and he turned away, but not before giving me the finger.
These are things I saw while trying to find Belmont Tunnel. A hipster with a small dog, and a man I assumed to be homeless, both with lined faces, surreptitiously greeted each other before disappearing into an apartment covered in tarp. Two plump women laughed as they cooked chicken on a smoking coal grill, outside a leaning garage. A little girl squealed with delight as a slightly bigger boy pushed her in a tire swing that hung over the sidewalk. Two boys threw a football clear across the street as smaller children cheered them on. Most of what I saw was joyful, and all of it was entirely human.
The only people I couldn't see were the folks driving out of the massive Belmont Station Apartments, where studios start at $1,600 a month. This "fashion forward statement of environmentally conscious living" takes up much of what was once the Toluca Yard -- initially the domain of trolleys and tracks, later of taggers and pelota tarasca players. The windows of the Audis and BMWs that drove out of the complex's underground parking lot that Sunday were tinted. They were not participants in the neighborhood's life.
Embedded into the complex is the tiny park where the sealed entrance to Belmont Tunnel still stands. Artist Tait Roelof's glow-in-the-dark mural of a red trolley car seems to shoot out of the entrance, like a slightly sinister ghost of the past. Next to it sits the Toluca Substation, once covered in graffiti, now a government issue grey. The squares of grass in the park are unnaturally green Astroturf, and two shiny grills stand at attention at either side of the substation, ready to service a football cookout or a craft cocktail party.
The gates to the empty park are high, and no matter how I twisted the handle of the electronically locked door, it would not budge. I trudged back to my car and took the surface streets to my home in Los Feliz, though the 101 was only seconds away. Something about my visit had made me feel resentful towards L.A.'s freeways and the isolation they afford.
First of a Great System
By the 1920s, Los Angeles was facing a traffic crisis. In 1901, Henry Huntington (of Huntington Gardens fame) bought the city's privately owned electric streetcar system and formed the Pacific Electric Company. Los Angeles soon had the most extensive aboveground public transportation system in the country. The Yellow Car line took passengers short distances. The more iconic Red Car line connected Los Angeles with its already considerable urban sprawl. However, it soon became inadequate.
Cars were fast taking over the streets and competing with trolleys, causing massive traffic jams in downtown Los Angeles. Downtown was the commercial, financial and cultural heart of the LA metropolitan area. Residents in growing suburbs like Glendale, Burbank and Santa Monica wanted easy access to downtown stores and a painless commute to work. Leaders in these suburbs were also eager for more efficient rail service. The better the transportation, the easier to convince people to move out of the city proper. In turn, downtown businesses were clamoring for the patronage of these outlying citizens, especially the "lady shoppers" with disposable incomes and free time.
Throughout the early 1920s, grand plans for a subway system to rival New York and London were discussed. It was not only considered a necessity, it was also a point of civic pride. It is out of these grand schemes that our Belmont Tunnel was born. It was believed that the tunnel would be "the forerunner of a subway system which will enable the city to take care of all its transportation problems as they arise during the years to come." 2
Known at the time as the "Hollywood Subway" or the Pacific Electric Subway, the mile long concrete and steel tunnel began in a downtown terminus below the massive new Subway Terminal Building, at 417 South Hill Street. It resurfaced near where Glendale Boulevard intersected with First Street and Beverly Boulevard in Westlake. Upon exiting the tunnel, Red Cars entered the Toluca Yard and split onto multiple tracks connecting to the long running Glendale-Burbank, Hollywood, Santa Monica and San Fernando Valley lines. By bypassing downtown traffic and eliminating local stops, it was estimated the subway would cut between twelve to fifteen minutes off daily commutes.
The "Hollywood Subway" was opened with much fanfare on December 1, 1925. A noon lunch at the Biltmore was held by the Chamber of Commerce for 1100 of the city's elite. The L.A. Times described the thrilling scene that followed:
The Glendale-Burbank line was the first to utilize the tunnel. Starting at 5 a.m., sixty-seven trains ran daily from the station below the Subway Terminal Building Street to Glendale. Thirty-two ran to Burbank. In the next few months, the Hollywood and San Fernando cars joined them. Hundreds of streetcars were taken off busy downtown streets, easing surface traffic considerably. The new Subway Terminal Building on Hill Street became the most fashionable business address in Los Angeles. At the exit of the tunnel in Westlake, Red Cars whizzed by, mechanics worked on deficient cars in Toluca Yard, and Pacific Electric employees made sure the Toluca Substation, which provided power for all electric cars, ran smoothly.
Although thousands patronized the Hollywood Subway throughout the '20s and '30s, plans for a great interurban subway system stalled. In 1934, Mayor Frank Shaw admitted that Los Angeles was at least ten to fifteen years behind other cities in developing a mass transit system. "If values are to be maintained in the central and outlying areas, a new means of adequate transportation must be developed." 4 Of course, Mayor Shaw wasn't one to preach about values, and he was recalled due to massive corruption in 1938.
Due to fuel rations and an increased temporary workforce, use of the subway reached its peak during World War Two. It is estimated that around 65,000 passengers traveled through the tunnel every day throughout the war years. Belmont Tunnel was also designated as an air raid shelter that could hold up to 10,000 Angelenos.
But as the city settled back into post war normalcy and car ownership increased, the aging fleets of Red Cars saw their daily commuter population plummet. Buses took over many of the routes formerly run by the Red Cars, and the city began building the epic freeways that now dominate Los Angeles. In 1952, what remained of Pacific Electric was bought by Metropolitan Coach Lines, "whose intention was to convert all rail service to bus service as quickly as possible." 6 On June 19, 1955, the last Red Car on the route made its way out of the Subway Terminal Building terminus, a banner reading "To Oblivion" stretched across its nose.
The Subway Terminal building was closed. The train tracks were ripped out of Toluca Yard. Belmont Tunnel, Toluca Yard and the Toluca Substation were all abandoned, leaving the gutted remains of what could have been. The city was gifted the now useless tunnel in 1966, prompting the L.A. Times to joke: "City given hole in ground as gift -- now must fill it up."
The city used portions of the tunnel intermittently. Cold war rations were kept there, including 329,700 pounds of crackers. These could feed almost 70,000 people for 14 days, in case of a nuclear attack (they were removed after the tunnel sprung a leak). Impounded cars were stored there. In true LA fashion, both the homeless population and the filming community moved into the tunnels. Residents of Westlake used the abandoned Toluca Yards to create their own makeshift sports field where they played the ancient ball game of pelota tarasca. Soon, another group was added to the mix-a group of outlaw artists. These young, predominantly male Angelinos would soon make Belmont Tunnel an internationally recognized monument to the new art of graffiti.
In 1984, a young tagger and Belmont High student, who went by the name "Shandu", painted the first large scale graffiti piece in Belmont Tunnel. The stylized lettering read "Risko City." Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard soon became the "internationally recognized epicenter of West Coast Graffiti." 9 For the next twenty-odd years, colorful pieces, done in the dramatic "Wild Style" lettering, covered the tunnel's interior, exterior, and the walls that surrounded the yard. The Toluca Substation was turned into a multidimensional canvas, and completely painted.
The best of the tagging community put up pieces at the tunnel. The risqué, daring, and competitive culture of illegal graffiti at Belmont Park was covered by magazines and documentarians, and visited by leaders in the art world. Mike Angel, who was involved in the graffiti scene during this time, remembers his experiences as a tagger at Belmont Tunnel in the early 2000s:
Though graffiti was a crime in Los Angeles, city officials often looked the other way in regards to Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard. By the early '90s, the city was spending tens of millions of dollars a year cleaning up graffiti -- but Belmont Tunnel's no-man's land status meant that it was spared.
In 2002, Meta Housing Corporation bought Toluca Yard, and announced plans to build a 276 unit apartment complex that would include 57 affordable housing units. Neighborhood activists fought to save the yard. They claimed that taggers and underserved Westlake residents had created a park and artistic space of considerable importance on the property. In 2004, the tunnel and substation were granted historic status, but activists' request that it be a graffiti art park was denied. The cleaned up and filled in tunnel and grey-washed substation were integrated into the apartment complex's design, and permission to begin construction was granted in December of 2004.
So, that is where we are today -- a giant apartment complex, and a shut off and antiseptic park. A positive addition to the neighborhood is the new Vista Hermosa Park, which sits on a hill on the other side of the Beverly Boulevard Viaduct. When I visited this lovely green space, I was blown away by its spectacular views of downtown. I was heartened to see men and women playing soccer on a beautiful sports field, and families taking portraits in the clean smelling air.
Additional Photos By: Hadley Meares
1 "How subway will absorb downtown traffic" Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1925
2 "What was and what is in trolley travel" Los Angeles Times, December 1, 1925
5 "Auto travels rail subway; driver held on drunk charge" Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1939
7 "Old tunnel may be tagged" Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2004
8 "Housing plans for old subway site gains" Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2004
9 "L.A. then and now" Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2009
10 Interview with the author, 2013