Battle of the Bulge

The surface of the city is on the move. On a day-to-day basis, Los Angeles appears stationary; its urban points seem fixed. But the metropolis wanders. Solid ground is, in fact, adrift, slowly roiling atop a seismic sea, not exactly on pause but operating at a pace so imperceptible that Angelenos often forget it’s even happening. Until, of course, there is an earthquake, a tremor of one plate sliding against another, jolting the city out of its sense of complacency. The Earth then is not, in fact, dormant. The terrain here suffers fits of waking, shuddering out of its long sleep.

There is something almost comical about a photograph taken near Long Beach in 1946. It shows a young boy measuring what the caption alternately calls a “mysterious upswelling” and a “surprising uprising.” The street has cracked in half: there is a rising ridge buckling upward, breaking the concrete and exposing part of the jagged roadbed. The boy seems to be concentrating, holding his measuring stick steady. He is perhaps a scientist in the making, aiming to solve the problem of exactly how much the city has deformed. Behind him, a parked car rests across this puzzling bulge, its wheels barely touching the ground on either side. There are sawhorses in the center of the road, implying closure. Three women look on pensively in the background.

“Residents were shocked yesterday to discover they were living in ‘hill country,’” the caption continues, implying the rapid appearance of new landforms that no one had been anticipating. There could be hills anywhere in Los Angeles, we might infer from this, lying in wait beneath our streets and sidewalks, prepping themselves for imminent exposure. Everything we trust is on the verge of transformation, upending our assumptions of solidity. A street today is a mountain tomorrow.

But what really caused this distortion in the field of Greater Los Angeles? It could be seismic, of course, but it could also have been nothing more than a bad foundation; it could have been a broken water main somewhere below. Either way, it is an event beneath the surface of things, awaiting measurement and explanation. “Officials,” the caption adds, “are investigating.”

Mysterious upswelling of Opp street above curb, Wilmington, 1946
“Mysterious upswelling of Opp street above curb, Wilmington [Los Angeles],” (1946). Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

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