Where Is this Bridge Going?

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The old Sixth Street Bridge is gone. It was torn down early in 2016. The demolition was necessary because the concrete in the original structure was decaying. Work has begun on constructing a new Sixth Street Bridge, and right now it looks like it will be finished in 2020. (For the record, the formal project title is the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project.)

Bridges are about making connections. The original structure was built in 1932, and was one of a series of bridges that spans the LA River. This ambitious infrastructure project started in the 20s and continued through the 30s, eventually allowing numerous crossings between Downtown and East LA. Here are a few photos of the old Sixth Street Bridge.

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A shot from the base of the bridge.

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A truck coming down the west side.

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A view of the bridge facing west.

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Downtown in the distance.

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A view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the old bridge.

The renderings of the new bridge are striking. It was designed by architect Michael Maltzan, but the project is a team effort, and the goal is to produce something much more than a bridge. Here’s a quote from Maltzan’s web site.

The design team including Michael Maltzan Architecture (Design Architect), HNTB (Engineer and Executive Architect), Hargreaves Associates (Landscape Architect), and AC Martin (Urban Planning) began with the fundamental understanding that the Viaduct is more than a simple replacement thoroughfare crossing the Los Angeles River. The project instead foresees a multimodal future for the City, one that accommodates cars, incorporates significant new bicycle connections. It also increases connectivity for pedestrians to access the Viaduct, not only at its endpoints, but along the entirety of the span, linking the bridge, the Los Angeles River, and future urban landscapes in a more meaningful relationship.

The project also includes a park and an arts center. You can see some images here.

Sixth Street Viaduct/PARC from LA Bureau of Engineering

Here are some shots of the project site from March 2017, when work on the new bridge was just beginning.

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For the time being, this is where Sixth St. ends.

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Lots of machinery on the project site.

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Looking across the river toward East LA.

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A shot of the riverbed when construction was just starting.

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Another angle.

And here are some shots from August 2017.

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A little more progress has been made.

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A closer view.

For the team involved with the design, this project is all about bringing things together, creating connections and offering new ways for people to experience this space. One of the chief goals is to link the Arts District with Boyle Heights and the LA River. That sounds pretty cool in the abstract, but in actual fact there are a lot of reasons to worry about the downside. I’m sure Maltzan and his team see this project as a positive thing, but that’s not surprising. They’re architects and engineers engaged in creating a spectacular new piece of infrastructure. And of course the City’s website  is all about the upside.  But really, the City’s glib promo materials don’t begin to describe what’s happening here. By itself, the new bridge may sound great, but if you look at it in the larger context of the area’s culture and economy, you start to realize that this project could have serious negative impacts.

Any large scale infrastructure project, any attempt to remake the landscape, is going to affect the surrounding communities. These impacts can be good or bad, and often it’s a mix of the two. In this case, the biggest issue is one that never gets mentioned on the City’s web site. It’s the same issue that communities all over LA are dealing with. Displacement. Downtown LA has been going through a massive construction boom, with high-end housing and high-end retail largely transforming that community into an upscale enclave. Now developers are eyeing neighborhoods on the other side of the river.

The residents of Boyle Heights are already feeling the effects of gentrification, as real estate investors looking for cheap land and big profits have been buying up parcels in the area. Evictions are already happening, and many people who live in this largely Latino community are afraid they’ll be next. You may have read about the protests that have taken place in recent years. Here are some shots from an action staged by East LA residents in September 2016.  Protesters met at the intersection of Whittier and Boyle, where the old bridge touched down on the East Side.

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“Boyle Heights Is Not for Sale.”

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Families are worried about losing their homes.

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Many people on this side of the river see gentrification as violence.

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New art galleries are seen as harbingers of displacement.

The protest movement in Boyle Heights has gotten a fair amount of media attention, partly because in some cases the protesters have used aggressive tactics in trying to shut down a new coffee house and some local galleries. They see these businesses as the first outposts of coming gentrification. There are people who have questioned the protesters’ methods, complaining that they’ve gone too far. But let me ask you this. If you were in danger of losing your home and being driven out of your neighborhood, how far do you think you’d be willing to go?

It’s no accident that communities like Boyle Heights have been targeted by real estate investors. Land is cheaper there than in Downtown, and they know that the completion of the bridge and the accompanying amenities will make the area more desirable to upscale residents. We’ve already seen something similar happen in the Arts District. A largely low-income community has been rapidly transformed by a massive influx of developer dollars, and the people who had lived there for years, in fact, the people who actually built the community, have been driven out.  A similar scenario has been unfolding in Hollywood, and with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line you can see the same thing happening in communities like Leimert Park.

Investment in a community can be a good thing, but not when it drives out the people who have spent their lives there. And these days it’s not a gradual evolution. City Hall works with developers to target areas for rapid growth, almost all of it geared toward affluent new residents. When the City or County lays plans for new infrastructure, like light rail or parks or, in this case, a bridge, real estate investors move in quickly.  Often these investors are well connected at City Hall and already have possible projects in mind.  In other cases they’re speculators just snapping up parcels that they know will rise in value. They don’t plan to build anything, since they know they can make a profit just by sitting on the property until new infrastructure is in place.  And Mayor Garcetti gleefully promotes the aggressive transformation of these communities, apparently without giving a thought to the real suffering that displacement is causing for thousands of Angelenos. It seems he feels he was elected just to serve the affluent.

These days I hear so much talk about making LA a “world class city”, and I’m really sick of it. Garcetti’s idea of creating a “world class city” is about pouring billions into new infrastructure so that developers can cash in by building upscale enclaves for the affluent. Personally, I don’t care what class LA is in. If we can’t help hardworking people stay in their homes, if we can’t support communities that people have invested their lives in building, then this city is a failure.

You can spend all the money you want on bridges and parks and rivers and rail lines. All that stuff is meaningless if at the same time we’re dismantling our communities, the human infrastructure that really holds this city together.

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Seen on the Street

Unknown Artist, Sunset west of Highland

Unknown Artist, Sunset west of Highland

Nothing against museums, but there’s something really cool about artists who put their work right out on the street. A, it’s free. B, it makes walking around the city so much more interesting. And C, the best street art engages you in a way that’s more immediate than the experience you get in a museum. You’re strolling down to the liquor store to get a six pack and bang, you run up against something somebody stuck on the side of a building. Or a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. Or a billboard towering overhead.

It’s interesting how people’s attitudes to street art have changed. Back in the 70s guys who went around blasting walls with spray paint were vandals. Ten years later a lot of those same guys were showing their stuff at the Whitney Biennial. You can still find artists who sneak around with an aerosol can in the dead of night, but you can also find artists doing large scale public projects with backing from a foundation.

Here’s a sampling of some stuff I’ve found roaming around LA….

People are constantly pasting stuff up all over Hollywood. A lot of it’s junk, but this caught my eye one morning as I walked past the Pacific Theatre.

Unknown Artist, Wilcox north of Hollywood

Unknown Artist, Wilcox north of Hollywood

These images of bottles have been showing up in various places over the past year or so. Honestly, I can’t figure out what it’s about, but I think they’re kind of cool.

Unknown Artist, Beverly near Detroit

Unknown Artist, Beverly near Detroit

Unknown Artist, Cahuenga near Franklin

Unknown Artist, Cahuenga near Franklin

Unknown Artist, Cahuenga near Franklin

Unknown Artist, Cahuenga near Franklin

Is anything more tempting to guerilla artists than an abandoned structure? This building at the corner of Argyle and Yucca was demolished a while ago, but I got a few photos before it disappeared.

Unknown Artists, Yucca and Argyle

Unknown Artists, Yucca and Argyle

This is a shot of the same building from the freeway.

Unknown Artists, Yucca and Argyle

Unknown Artists, Yucca and Argyle

Some artists keep it simple and rough.

Unknown Artist, Wilcox north of Sunset

Unknown Artist, Wilcox north of Sunset

Others spend a lot of time and effort to make it as polished as possible.

D*Face, Santa Monica near Flemish Lane

D*Face, Santa Monica near Flemish Lane

The image above is by D*Face, a classic example of someone who started out doing his own thing on the street, and over time became an established professional. To see more of his work, check out his site.

D*Face

Sometimes it’s a political statement.

Unknown Artist, Wilcox near Hollywood

Unknown Artist, Wilcox near Hollywood

Unknown Artist, Wilcox near Franklin

Unknown Artist, Wilcox near Franklin

Other times it’s just a statement.

Unknown Artist, Selma and Ivar

Unknown Artist, Selma and Ivar

Unknown Artist, Sunset near Gardner

Unknown Artist, Sunset near Gardner

I was out in Boyle Heights a while ago and I saw these banners decorating a fence that surrounded a construction site.

A row of banners at a construction site, First and Boyle

A row of banners at a construction site, First and Boyle

Lesther Cabrales, First and Boyle

Lesther Cabrales, First and Boyle

Izzy Jaquez and Diego Escamilla, First and Boyle

Izzy Jaquez and Diego Escamilla, First and Boyle

I was told that the project was put together by Self Help Graphics, a non-profit that’s been serving local communities for over forty years. Here’s the link.

Self Help Graphics & Art

Found this at a construction site in Downtown. Somehow it really seems to capture the vibe in LA right now.

Unknown Artist, Fifth west of Broadway

Unknown Artist, Fifth west of Broadway

I think I saw this at a construction site on Hill. Honestly, I can’t remember exactly where it was.

Unknown Artist, Unknown Location

Unknown Artist, Unknown Location

Obviously phone kiosks aren’t getting a lot of use these days. Local artists have come up with lots of different ways to transform them.

Unknown Artist, Hill near Fourth

Unknown Artist, Hill near Fourth

I’d seen these giant faces peering down from walls around town, but I didn’t realize they were part of a project by this guy who calls himself JR. Follow the link below to find out more. There’s a video you can watch that gives the lowdown.

Wrinkles of the City at DesignBoom

JR, Fifth near Main

JR, Fifth near Main

JR, Alameda and Traction, rear of building

JR, Alameda and Traction, rear of building

The image above can be found in back of Angel City Brewery on Alameda. And the mural you see below is right next to it.

Dabs & Myla and How & Nosm, Alameda and Third, rear of building

Dabs & Myla and How & Nosm, Alameda and Third, rear of building

Finally this billboard by Robert Montgomery on Broadway near the UA Theatre. Not much to say about this one. I’ll let the work speak for itself.

Robert Montgomery, Broadway near Ninth

Robert Montgomery, Broadway near Ninth

Mariachi Plaza

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Mariachi Plaza isn’t just a place. It’s a part of LA’s history. A piece of the city’s culture. Musicians have been gathering there since the 1930s, making music, looking for work, hanging out with friends, killing time. The plaza is also a gathering place for the community in Boyle Heights, vendors setting up booths to sell their wares, crowds gathering for a celebration.

Mariachi music is the result of hundreds of years of cultural give and take between the indigenous people of Mexico and the colonists from Spain. It started to take the shape we recognize today in the nineteenth century in the state of Jalisco. Mariachi ensembles come in many different sizes. There are the full orchestras with a string section, a couple of trumpets, a variety of guitars and a harp, but the musicians often play in smaller groups, too. It depends on the occasion and how much money’s being offered.

A view of First Street, bordering the plaza.

A view of First Street, bordering the plaza.

On the plaza there’s a large bandstand that was donated by the people of Jalisco, as well as a small amphitheatre which was built in the process of constructing the MTA Gold Line station. There are also a few modest buildings that have stood on the plaza for years, their walls decorated with colorful murals. Aside from the changes that came with the construction of the Gold Line stop, the plaza has looked pretty much the same for decades.

The bandstand.

The bandstand.

The amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre.

But the future of Mariachi Plaza is being hotly debated now, and it’s hard to say who will win in the struggle to shape its future. At the beginning of 2015 there was a huge uproar when the MTA unveiled its plan to develop the site. In the agency’s view, they were doing the community a big favor by bringing in an eight story project that included medical offices, a gym, restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, the MTA forgot to ask the community how they felt about it. Local residents were furious. The people of Boyle Heights were understandably angry about the fact that City and County officials had not brought them into the planning process. The MTA backed down, saying that they were going to start from scratch, and promising to involve residents this time. Some in the community are concerned, though, that all the agency intends to do is hold a few public meetings to steer people towards a plan they’ve already decided on. If that’s what happens, it wouldn’t be surprising. That’s standard operating procedure in LA.

The people of Boyle Heights are used to being ignored. Historically, few people at City Hall have shown much interest in this largely Latino community. It’s only in recent years, with the arrival of the Gold Line and the onset of gentrification that developers have started paying attention to the area. No one would argue that the community needs investment, and some locals feel that Boyle Heights would benefit from “gentefication”, in other words, a push for revitalization that maintained the neighborhood’s Latino character. But the past several years have shown that the City really doesn’t care much about preserving the character of existing communities. Residents of Hollywood, the Crenshaw District, Koreatown, Sherman Oaks and other neighborhoods have been hammered by the unholy alliance between City Hall and real estate speculators.

I went down to Mariachi Plaza a few weeks ago to take some pictures. It was a cloudy day, and not much was happening. This didn’t bother me because I always get a little nervous about shooting photos when people are walking by. I’m not crazy about having my own picture taken, and I don’t want to intrude on other people’s privacy. But then I realized, Hey, you’re at Mariachi Plaza. You’ve gotta get at least one shot of the musicians. And there’s another layer of anxiety here, because I knew some of the guys hanging out on the plaza were probably undocumented. It’s understandable that some immigrants get a little nervous when a stranger with a camera walks up and starts snapping photos. I finally did ask a group six guys if I could take a picture. Three of them walked away, but the other three were cool with it.

Musicians hanging out on the plaza.

Musicians hanging out on the plaza.

On the west side of the plaza you can see the Mariachi Hotel, also called the Boyle Hotel, originally the Cummings Hotel.

The Mariachi Hotel.

The Mariachi Hotel.

It has stood at the corner of Boyle and First since the end of the nineteenth century. Today it’s home to a number of the musicians who populate the plaza. You can see by the sign at the top of the hotel that some residents are concerned about outsiders taking over their community.  It says, “Alto a la Gentrificación.  Un Boyle Heights, Por Boyle Heights, Para Boyle Heights.”  (“Stop Gentrification.  One Boyle Heights, by Boyle Heights, for Boyle Heights.”)

Libros Schmibros

Libros Schmibros

Libros Schmibros is right on the plaza. It’s a lending library dedicated to making books available to everybody. The statement on their web site says that, “Libros Schmibros champions the pleasures of literature and its power to change lives,” which sounds pretty cool to me. Here’s the link if you want to learn more.

Libros Schmibros

Just around the corner I found an artist working on a mural.

Artist working on a mural just off the plaza.

Artist working on a mural just off the plaza.

Another view of the mural.

Another view of the mural.

Sorry, but the alley was really narrow, and I couldn’t get far enough away to take a picture of the whole thing. I guess if you want to see how beautiful it really is, you’ll just have to go down there yourself.

I went back another day and things were much more lively. A band was on stage in the amphitheatre, people were dancing on the plaza, and the place was crowded with booths offering all sorts of stuff.

People having a good time on the plaza.

People having a good time on the plaza.

The plaza crowded with booths.

The plaza crowded with booths.

I don’t think many of the residents of Boyle Heights would argue against the need for development. What they want is to have a voice in the planning. So many of the projects proposed in this city are the result of deals made between politicians and developers behind closed doors. That’s got to stop. The only way to plan for a community is to invite the community’s participation. This can be a long, slow, difficult process, but in the end it’s more efficient than the City’s current approach. If the MTA had talked to the people of Boyle Heights first, they could have avoided the huge embarrassment of having their project shut down. If the MTA had spent some time listening to residents, by now they might be well on the way to building something that they community could really support.

If you want to dig deeper into the history of Mariachi Plaza, check out the web site.

Mariachi Plaza

And this essay with photos is worth taking a look at.

The History of the Cummings Block

Banner by artist Dalia Ruiz.

Banner by artist Dalia Ruiz.

Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

Evergreen Cemetery

EC 01 EntI first saw Evergreen Cemetery in a movie. I was watching Sam Fuller’s 1959 film Crimson Kimono, much of which was shot on location in LA.* There’s a scene where a detective speaks with an elderly Japanese man in a cemetery. It stuck in my mind, and I got on the net to see if I could track the location down.

It wasn’t hard. There’s a fair amount of information available on Evergreen Cemetery, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. It was founded in 1877, and is located in Boyle Heights. Like every cemetery, it serves as a reminder and a record of the past, but it also holds a special place in LA history for a couple of reasons. First, it was unusual because in addition to serving the white community, it also served the African-American, Mexican and Japanese communities. Evergreen is an important reminder of the city’s multicultural heritage. Second, it’s the final resting place of a number of people who shaped not just LA history, but US history. Tombstones belonging to actors, journalists, business leaders, war heroes, musicians, can all be found at this cemetery.

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Charlotta Bass, publisher of the California Eagle, an early black-owned newspaper, and vice-presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1952 is interred here. So is rancher and farmer Isaac Lankershim, who played a major role in the early development of the San Fernando Valley. You’ll find the grave of Earl Gilmore, who, after taking over his father’s oil company, expanded his business interests in many directions, and created the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax. The cemetery holds a monument to the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, made up of Japanese-American soldiers, that served with distinction in World War II. And there is also the Nineteenth Century Chinese Memorial Shrine, which was restored back in the 1990s with the help of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

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Not too long ago, I went to visit Evergreen Cemetery with some people I know. There were a few others visitors, but most of the time it seemed like we were alone in this vast graveyard. The patchy grass was green in some places, brown in others. The sun was hot when we weren’t standing in the shade of the large trees. A few graves had fresh flowers on them. Many of them seemed like they hadn’t been touched in years. Aside from the occasional murmur of voices, or the sound of traffic passing on Cesar Chavez Ave., it was very quiet. Very peaceful.

EC 06 AngelBelow are a few links to sites I visited while researching the cemetery. The first offers a list of some of the people buried at Evergreen, and also provides a timeline. The second, from the KCET web site, gives a vivid and engaging account of the cemetery’s history. Plus it includes lots of cool photos. Last, a fascinating account of the Chinese Memorial Shrine. This story shows how an important piece of LA’s history was almost lost, and also how difficult preserving the past can be.

Evergreen Cemetery

Evergreen Cemetery at KCET

Nineteenth Century Chinese Memorial Shrine

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The majority of the location work for Crimson Kimono was shot in Little Tokyo, but Evergreen Cemetery is located in Boyle Heights. If you’re interested in LA history, the film offers extensive views of the city in the fifties, with a focus on the Japanese-American community.