Friday, November 20, 2009

Trolley Lines

One of my favorite past-times has been to look at the configuration of streets in any older city, but specifically Los Angeles, where I grew up.  I like to guestimate how and why the streets join, fork, meander and reconnect like they do.

This interest has always been within me.  But I think it was awakened by my father, who at one point while driving me when I was young, pointed out a street with a media and told me how it was once a trolley car, or Red Car line.

With this little bet of insight, I started noticing how streets around LA kind of flow and curve into each other in a way that indicates a less-than-well planned grid that many newer cities have.

For you LA peeps, for example, have you ever noticed in the San Fernando Valley, how Chandler Blvd. slides into Van Nuys Blvd (North and South if you look carefully), and then how Van Nuys Blvd. has a portion that curves into Parthenia, and then Parthenia into Sepulveda Blvd. 

How about how San Vicente does such a strange, diagonal alignment throughout Mid-Wilshire through the West Side?  If not, I don’t blame you.  It’s so each to drive by these types of urban features without ever noticing them.  Because my brain is (hay)wired in this way, these types of things pop out at me as if in neon.  I can walk into an old building or a home and instantly tell where an old door or walkway probably was.

My friend and I call this phenomenon, Urban Archeology.  It’s something we coined when we first discovered and then bribed our way into the old Red Car Subway Terminal Building in downtown LA that ended about a mile-long tunnel that started at Glendale Blvd. and 1st Street just Northwest of the downtown area.

There were Red Car Lines as well as other strains of rail transportation all over LA, and most older cities for that matter.  If you have a map of the greater Los Angeles area, you’ll more easily notice how streets make strange little jaunts; it’s the rule, not the exception.

The expanse of the Red Car Lines was enormous going from Long Beach to the most Northern Parts of the San Fernando Valley; from Santa Monica, up to Mount Lowe above Pasadena where you could be let off at a rustic, yet poche hotel at 4000 feet.  You could ride from Redondo Beach to Lake Arrowhead.  It was truly colossal, and yet I doubt that many people younger than about 40 years old (who’s parents didn’t shut up about it all) would be familiar with the Red Car except in a few movies as background features like “The Changling.”

At the time of this writing, I am actually sitting at an intersection  in Burbank where two Red Car lines forked.  The Riverside Drive line and the Alameda Street line, which connected to the Olive Drive line a few blocks to the East.  Many of these “right of ways” are now either streets, or have been turned into other uses.  The section of Chandler Blvd, which still had tracks on it’s median until about four years ago, is now a bike and running path; a very nice one I will add.

The rest of this line, which goes from Lankershim Blvd. to the West to Ethel Avenue, then hikes at a diagonal to Victory Blvd where it shoots due West all the way to Woodland Hills, is now an express bus system; part of the Metro line.

However, the fate of most of these rights of ways hasn’t been as useful in my opinion.  Many have been blacktopped over (Sepulveda around Pico and also Olympic areas where you can see a little track just bubbling up in certain spots), sold off by the railroad companies who ultimately owned many of them, or were sold by the local city municipalities and developed into other real estate uses.

Santa Monica Blvd. was full of connections in and out of it’s main line. 

I remember as a kid, we used to drive down Beverly Glen Blvd. past Santa Monica in which you would drive under a train bridge; this was the old Red Line.  That bridge and the associated track have been removed.

There was also a very interesting section of track, which was a diagonal short cut that brought you from the Hollywood Line down to the Santa Monica Line.  It’s been removed, but if you look carefully, you will see that it’s now an odd, diagonal alley that runs southwest from Hollywood Blvd. and La Brea to Santa Monica and Fairfax Avenue.  If you Google-map it, you can make out this feature.  Often, patterns that are hard to see in close detail from the ground are more apparent from the air or from satellite photos.

The portion of a line that ran from about where the Marina Del Rey freeway (90) ends at Lincoln Blvd and into Venice Beach via a line that was just West of what is now Abbot Kenny Blvd (formerly Washington Place) is now almost completely condo’s and apartment buildings.

The reason I find this unfortunate is that at a time when we are finally realizing that we need a good transportation system established in Los Angeles County, we have already sold off most of the pre-existing rail infrastructure that could have served us so well.  Retrofitting it now is next to impossible. So new rights of way need to be purchased and developed for any future transportation expansion.

They say that the automobile lobbies ultimately forced the shut down of what was left of the Pacific Electric Red Car lines in the mid 1960’s by pushing legislation that would cripple the Red Car in bits and pieces, such as giving autos the right of way at intersections where autos and the Red Car were competing for light signals.  But I think that it was more the result of a general lack of insight into what our cities needed in the future, as they would grow in population.

Maybe indeed it was the glory of being able to be in your own vehicle in such as large place such as Los Angeles that was irresistible.  But driving is no longer a viable mode of transportation from about 7:30am to 7:30pm weekdays here in Los Angeles.  There are just too many people.  And now that we’ve done away with the transportation system we once had, we have to start all over again at a much larger expense.

It’s too bad the Pacific Electric Red Car and all of its cousins aren’t still around.  It seems like they would have been fun to ride in.

(Fred and buddy inside Subway Terminal Building circa 1987)

Pacific Electric Railway - Wikipedia