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Did You Know? Fascinating Stories of Subterranean L.A.

What lies beneath our Los Angeles feet? What is the connection between our terra firma and all that lies below? What can we learn about both our past and future from looking down instead of up? On Saturday, Nov. 11, USC’s Doheny Library will host “Under L.A.: Subterranean Stories” . The anecdotes you are about to read are some of many that will be explored in the one-day public conference.

 

Los Angeles appears to be about the surfaces, but it's really about the depths. Geology, infrastructure and mythologies — they all intersect beneath the level of the city's streets. “A city 70 miles square but rarely 70 years deep,” Reyner Banham once described it, but that has proved not quite to represent the place. Or perhaps it's that the place has proved to be a city that we peel back in layers, practical and cultural and scientific, where to immerse becomes the only way to know.
 

Robert de Groot, ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning Program

Did you know that beneath Los Angeles there is a tectonic traffic jam? In Southern California, the 800-mile long San Andreas fault has a left bend in it called "The Big Bend." Motion along the San Andreas causes the entire region to be squeezed and every day the Palos Verdes Peninsula inches closer to Mount Wilson. But the ground underneath L.A. doesn't deform like putty, it has shattered like a car windshield hit by a rock. The shattered "crust" underneath Los Angeles is riddled with hundreds of faults where earthquakes can occur. 

Puente Hills Blind Thrust Fault
Schematic block diagram showing the association of GPS site motions with blind thrust faults in metropolitan Los Angeles. | US Geological Survey and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory​

William F. Deverell, USC Professor of History and Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California & the West

Did you know that an event underground in San Marino convinced the world of the power and utility of remote televised news? In the spring of 1949, a little girl fell into an abandoned water well in an open field in San Marino. Her fate remained unknown for over 48 hours, as first responders and would-be rescuers launched a frenzied effort to free her from far below the earth's surface. Kathy Fiscus died in that well, but the televised images from the site launched television news and became, in effect, the first reality television show in history.

 

LAPL/Georg Brich
Mrs. Robert McConnell and son Robert Jr. peer into strange 14-foot cave-in in backyard of their home at 216 N. Lincoln St., Burbank. Authorities say they can't figure out cause. | George Brich/Los Angeles Public Library

Michael Manville, UCLA Professor of Urban Planning

Walt Disney Concert Hall is an architectural gem on an ostensibly Grand Street, but no one enters the hall from the street. Instead, they enter through it's six-level, 2,188-space underground parking garage, which cost $110 million to build, or about $50,000 per space. The parking structure is an artifact of city laws: the minimum parking requirements that put so much parking around, atop and under our city. L.A.'s zoning said that a soaring symphony hall could not exist without a deep parking structure beneath it. Financially troubled Los Angeles County built the garage — it owns the land beneath Disney Hall — and went into debt to finance it, expecting that parking revenues would repay the borrowed money. But the garage was completed in 1996, and Disney Hall — which suffered its own budget problems — didn’t open until late 2003. During the seven years in between, the county had to subsidize the garage even as it laid off employees. When the Hall finally opened, its lease with the county specified that Disney Hall had to schedule at least 128 concerts each winter season. Why 128? That’s the minimum number of concerts that would generate the parking revenue necessary to pay the debt service on the garage. In its first year, Disney Hall scheduled exactly 128 concerts. Such is the power of parking beneath our feet. The minimum parking requirement led to a minimum concert requirement.

 

Walt Disney Concert Hall | LenazPic/Flickr
Walt Disney Concert Hall | LenazPic/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Peter Westwick, USC Assistant Professor of History

Did you know that in the Cold War 1950s, when nuclear fear was driving thousands of Los Angeles residents to build backyard bomb shelters, Southern California was also popularizing the backyard swimming pool? The two trends tapped similar expertise — digging a hole in the ground and lining it with concrete — and local swimming pool builders found a lucrative sideline in the bomb shelter business, adding greatly to the supply of bomb shelters in the L.A. area.

 

Mary Lou Miner, in summer sportswear, poses on top of a concrete-block bomb shelter. Apr. 7, 1951. | LAPL
Mary Lou Miner, in summer sportswear, poses on top of a concrete-block bomb shelter. Apr. 7, 1951. | Los Angeles Public Library

Emily Lindsey, Assistant Curator & Excavation Site Director, La Brea Tar Pits & Museum

Under L.A. is an unparalleled record of prehistoric life. Not only do we have the world-renowned La Brea Tar Pits, one of the most important fossil sites on earth, but subterranean L.A. also contains one of the world’s most fossil-rich records of Ice Age oceans. Whales have even been found under downtown!

 

Fossils at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits | Dallas Krentzel/Flickr
Fossils at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits | Dallas Krentzel/Flickr/Creative Commons License

To learn more about the one-day public conference, “Under L.A.: Subterranean Stories”, and how you can attend, click here.

Top image: Crenshaw/LAX Line | Metro - Los Angeles/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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