Lost LA through a Camera Lens

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A view of Downtown circa 1960 from The Exiles.

Los Angeles has changed a lot over the past hundred years. Rapid population growth, rampant real estate speculation and a slew of technological advances have caused the city to expand and mutate with amazing speed. And one of the most interesting things about LA is that it has recorded those changes since almost the beginning of the 20th century. As the center of the global film industry, and a major hub for all media, it’s always in one spotlight or another. You might say Los Angeles is obsessed with seeing itself in the mirror.

When the film industry first moved west back in the teens, there were a number of production companies shooting silent two-reelers on LA’s streets. Nobody was thinking about documenting the city as it was beginning to grow. Location shooting was just a cheap way to make movies. Hollywood silents made before 1920 are filled with scenes of the city’s early days, but because there hadn’t been much development and few of the familiar landmarks existed, it’s often hard to identify the streets and neighborhoods that appear in the background.

In the 20s Hollywood became studio bound, and for about two decades location shooting was the exception rather than the norm. But in the 40s studio crews started to venture back out into the streets. Many of the crime films shot after WWII used LA as a backdrop for the action. In the 60s, independent filmmakers started shooting all kinds of movies on the city’s streets. By the 80s filmmakers had begun to use the city self-consciously, making deliberate references not just to the city’s past but to its movie past.

Looking at the films shot over the years on LA’s streets we can see a broad panorama of the city’s history, but one that’s still maddeningly incomplete. While some locations appear over and again, there are whole communities that never appear at all. And so much of it is totally random. In a few cases filmmakers deliberately set out to take a good, hard look at the landscape and the people. Others focussed on famous landmarks that have a specific meaning for movie audiences, or used their settings to evoke nostalgia. And others just didn’t have the money to shoot anywhere else and let their location scout call the shots.

I watch a lot of movies, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m more aware than ever of how they reflect the changes that have happened over the course of LA’s history. I’m especially fascinated by images of things that no longer exist. Change is inevitable. The city’s landscape is never the same from one day to the next. Even when the streets and structures stay the same, the people, the customs, the culture keep changing, and that transforms the landscape, too.

In this post I’m pulling together images of places and spaces that have disappeared. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while. It took me months to get around to it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which movies to focus on, but I can’t even explain why I ended up choosing these six. The only thing they have in common is that they show pieces of LA that no longer exist. And trying to approach them in some kind of order was impossible. Or maybe better to say there were too many possibilities. Should I have organized them by the year the films were made? Or maybe used the locations to tell some kind of story? Or should I have tried to find a theme that ties them all together?

In the end I just decided to dive in and let my intuition guide me. This post may not even make sense, but hopefully you’ll get something out of the images. Let’s start in Downtown….

In the late 50s, Kent Mackenzie began working on a film set in Bunker Hill that focussed on the Native American community living in the area. The Exiles took over three years to make, and the production had more than its share of problems, but the end result was a unique blend of documentary and fiction that gave voice to people whose voices had never been heard before. Bunker Hill began in the 19th century as one of the city’s first upscale developments. By the middle of the 20th century the rich were long gone, and the aging homes that remained now housed a diverse low-income community. The Native Americans who lived there had left the reservations behind, looking for a different kind of life. In LA they were relegated to the margins of society, but living in Bunker Hill they at least had some kind of community. That lasted until City Hall declared the area “blighted”, and began pushing residents out as civic leaders and business interests pursued a massive redevelopment project.

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Angel’s Flight climbing Bunker Hill next to the Third Street Tunnel.

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A closer shot of Angel’s Flight with apartments in the background.

The Exiles captures the lives of three Native Americans as they live through a single night in Downtown LA. Shot entirely on location, it shows these people in their homes, on the streets, in bars and juke joints, and finally gathering on a hill that looks out over the nighttime landscape. It’s a vivid picture of a vanished world.

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One of the vanished streets of Bunker Hill.

Displacement is a recurring theme that runs through the whole history of Los Angeles. The city’s original Chinatown was situated on the edge of Downtown, straddling Alameda between Aliso and Macy (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). But in the 20s voters approved funds for a new rail terminal, and much of the Chinese community had to relocate to make way for Union Station.

In the late 40s Anthony Mann made a startling series of thrillers, often giving them a sense of immediacy by shooting on real locations. Much of T-Men is shot in LA, and it features glimpses of what was left of Chinatown in 1947. Check out this first still, which shows a determined US Treasury agent walking across Alameda with Union Station in the background.

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Dennis O’Keefe crossing Alameda Street in T-Men.

Then the camera pans to follow him, and on the west side of Alameda we see Ferguson Alley, a remnant of the original Chinese community.

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Ferguson Alley, one of the last remnants of LA’s original Chinatown.

Our hero visits a number of herbalists looking for someone who recalls selling a specific blend to a certain man. It’s a brief montage, but it gives us a look at what was left of early Chinatown after WWII. Eventually, these buildings were also levelled. After some false starts, a new, more modern, and more touristy, Chinatown was built to the north and west of the original site.

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O’Keefe mounts the stairs to an herbalist’s shop.

Crime Wave, directed by André de Toth, was also shot largely on location and gives a sweeping view of Los Angeles in the 50s. While it features a number of Downtown locales, the climactic bank heist takes place across the LA River in Glendale. The suburbs were thriving in the first decade after the war, and the film gives us a view of what Brand Boulevard looked like back in the day. In this scene we’re riding with Gene Nelson and Ted de Corsia as they drive up to the Bank of America at the corner of Brand and Broadway.

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The Bank of America at Brand and Broadway in Glendale.

The suburbs were a product of car culture, and cars are central to the story. The main character is an ex-con who’s forced to become the gang’s getaway driver. The scenes before and after the robbery offer numerous shots from the perspective of the man behind the wheel. And an abandoned car serves as an important key in the cops’ search to track down the criminals.

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The corner of Brand and Broadway.

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Ted de Corsia inside the Bank of America.

Crime Wave is tough as nails and brimming with tension, but even if you’re not into classic crime flicks, it’s worth watching for the way it maps out the city in the 50s. The final car chase more or less follows the actual path you’d take from Glendale back to Downtown, speeding down Brand toward the Hyperion Bridge.

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Another shot of Brand near Broadway.

By the late 60s suburbia had spread across the San Fernando Valley. Car culture played a major role in the rapid proliferation of housing tracts tied together by the ever expanding freeway system. Thousands of families moved to the suburbs in pursuit of a placid and prosperous lifestyle.

Which was an illusion. You can escape the city, but you can’t escape reality. The US was going through a violent upheaval, rocked by a string of political assassinations and a growing protest movement. Director Peter Bogdanovich looked past the supermarkets and the swimming pools and saw a side of the suburbs that most people were determined to ignore. Bogdanovich had been doing odd jobs for low-budget director/producer Roger Corman. Through Corman he got a chance to direct his first feature, Targets. The film follows a young man living with his parents and his wife in a tidy little house in the Valley, who one day picks up a gun and starts shooting people.

Targets is an innovative and unnerving look at the suburbs, America’s obsession with guns, and our twisted relationship with the movies. After following the young killer as he randomly picks off a number of unsuspecting victims, Bogdanovich stages a chilling climax that offers a complex reflection of the American landscape at the time. Cars lined up in rows at a drive-in movie, moms, dads, children and teens watching a horror flick unfold, when suddenly a sniper starts shooting at the audience from behind the screen.

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The marquee at the Reseda Drive-In.

The film was shot at the Reseda Drive-In, which was located at the corner of Reseda and Vanowen. It survived into the 70s, when it was torn down and replaced by a business park. Aside from the fact that it’s an arresting and original debut feature (one of Bogdanovich’s best), Targets also offers a fascinating glimpse of the vanished world of drive-in theatres. Passionately devoted to movies since childhood, the director records every aspect of the experience, from the people visiting the snack bar to the projectionist putting the reels in motion.

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The drive-in before the show starts.

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The playground near the screen.

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The snack bar.

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The projectionist setting the film in motion.

Hollywood has always been shameless about the strategies it uses to lure audiences to the movies. Two of the most common tactics are jumping on whatever fad is currently sweeping the nation, and exploiting people’s nostalgia for a past that never existed. Xanadu tries to do both at the same time. The story follows the efforts of two men, inspired by a muse, who come together to create a new nightclub that will bring back the glory of the big band era while catering to the roller disco crowd. Yeah, it’s a pretty strange movie, and one that will probably only appeal to those with a taste for bizarre kitsch. But I found out that parts of it were shot at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, and decided I had to check it out.

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The front of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.

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A closer shot of the Pan-Pacific.

For years the Pan-Pacific was a major venue, hosting car shows, sporting events and the Ice Capades. Designed by the firm of Wurdeman and Becket, the striking streamline moderne facade was one of LA’s architectural landmarks for decades. But it closed in the 70s, and though it was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places, no one was able to find a way to make it viable again. It was destroyed by fire in 1989.

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Another view of the Pan-Pacific.

It’s possible that if the Pan-Pacific had survived a while longer, it might have been revived. The local preservation movement was just taking shape in the 80s. But for years Los Angeles was seen as a city without a history, in large part because the people who lived here didn’t have a sense of its history. Buildings were put up and knocked down based on whatever the market dictated, and few people worried about what was lost in the process. Visitors from other places talked about how the city felt impermanent, and complained about a sense of rootlessness.

Having lived here all my life, I don’t see it that way, and I’ve had a hard time understanding what people from other places are talking about. But I think I got a taste of it the last time I watched Wim Wender’s The State of Things. It tells the story of a director shooting a sci-fi film in Europe whose funding dries up, and he flies to LA to get some answers. Friedrich picks up a rental car at LAX and sets out to track his producer down, speeding along the the endless freeways, cruising the wide boulevards of Hollywood and Century City. He seems lost, totally disconnected from the city around him. Watching the film again recently I think I began to understand the sense of disclocation so many complain about. Friedrich is just one more in a long line of European filmmakers who have found themselves wandering LA’s vast landscapes, squinting into the sun as they try to make sense of it all.

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Friedrich, played by Patrick Bauchau, cruising down the freeway in a rental car.

Many of LA’s buildings were never meant to be permanent. They were constructed by people who saw a market for a product and moved quickly to jump on whatever trend was popular at that moment. The roadside restaurants and coffee shops that started springing up after WWII weren’t meant to last forever. They were meant to catch a driver’s attention and pull them in before they sped past. The commercial architects who worked on these projects in the 50s quickly realized that the more extravagant and unusual a building was, the more likely it was to draw people in. The building became its own advertisement.

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Tiny Naylor’s at the corner of Sunset and La Brea.

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Bauchau orders a cup of coffee from a car hop.

As I said, nobody thought these structures would last through the ages. But as the years wore on, architects and critics began to value these brash, flashy buildings. And the people who had frequented these places had gotten attached to them. In the 60s if a developer had levelled one of these coffee shops, nobody would have batted an eye. By the 90s, preservationists were arguing that they held a special place in the area’s culture and should be protected.

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Another shot of Tiny Naylor’s.

That was too late for Tiny Naylor’s, located at Sunset and La Brea. The building, a Googie masterpiece by architect Douglas Honnold, was designed so that people could park outside and be served in their cars, a common feature of coffee shops from the era. The State of Things, released in 1982, captures Tiny Naylor’s in all its glory. A few years later it was torn down and replaced with a shopping mall.

The argument over what should be saved and what should be torn down will go on for as long as LA exists, and that’s part of the dynamic of any urban area. Cities are formed by the tension between the past and the future. LA will go on changing. And the movies will go on watching it change.

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Bauchau in an office building at Sunset and Vine, gazing at the LA landscape as it stretches out to the horizon.

 

LA’s Latest Innovation: Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks

RD Ovrcast

You just never know what the City of LA will come up with next….

There was an empty lot in my neighborhood that had been sitting vacant for years.  After a developer pitched a hotel for the site and got turned down, a new project came along consisting of 18 3-story condos.  It seemed like a good fit, the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) looked it over and gave it a thumbs up, and construction started last year.

Everything seemed okay until last November when I noticed what looked like a railing going up around the perimeter of the roof.  Were they adding rooftop decks?  That wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice for the project or the environmental assessment, and it wasn’t part of the project approved by the HHWNC.  Not long after the railing went up, it became clear that the construction crew had added staircases leading to the roof, and soon they were building stairwell coverings.

Why was I concerned?  Well, here in Hollywood people like to give parties.  Nothing wrong with parties in general, but sometimes they get pretty noisy, and sometimes they go on really late.  It’s already an issue in the neighborhood, and building 18 individual rooftop decks seemed like it was just increasing the chances of someone throwing an all-night open-air bash.

So initially my concern was selfish.  I was worried about the noise this project might create, and I was wondering why the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the package that was presented to the community and approved by the Department of City Planning (DCP).  I called up my City Council office, and talked to a very nice guy who said he’d look into it.  Over the next two months I sent three e-mails to this Council Office staffer asking for an update.  Never got an answer.

But during that time it occurred to me that there might be another problem with this project, a much more serious issue than raucous late night parties….

You see, these condos are going up right next to the Hollywood Freeway.  I’d say at the farthest point the structure is about 150 feet from the freeway and at the nearest point about 50.   I started wondering if building so close to a major traffic corridor wouldn’t pose health risks for the future occupants, so I got on the net to do some research.

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The space between the project site and the freeway.

Probably everybody reading this already knows what I found out.  There’s a large body of research showing a higher incidence of respiratory problems among people who live near freeways.  The risk is especially high for children and seniors.  In fact, young people can suffer lifelong damage since ongoing exposure to pollutants from auto exhaust may affect the development of their lungs.  This problem has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but the information has been out there for years.  USC has been studying the effects of air pollution on children since the 90s.  Here’s an article published by USC News back in 2004.

USC Study Links Smoggy Air to Lung Damage in Children, September 2004

Not long after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published their Air Quality and Land Use Handbook, warning cities about the risks of building housing near freeways.  Here’s the number one item on the handbook’s list of recommendations.

“Avoid siting new sensitive land uses within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles/day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles/day.”

So the information has been out there for more than a decade, and the City Council is well aware of the health impacts to people living close to freeways.  They’ve talked about ways to deal with the risks, but very little has happened in the way of concrete action.  In fact, in recent years the Council has approved thousands of residential units in close proximity to freeways.  They argue that LA’s housing shortage is so dire we can’t afford to prohibit construction in these areas even if there are health risks.  Even though I don’t buy that argument, I know that many people would agree.

But rooftop decks?!  Are they crazy?!

After reading up on the potential health risks, the idea of adding rooftop decks to these condos seemed so absolutely insane I thought it was worth making a few phone calls.  I rang up the woman at the DCP who prepared the initial study for the project.  I explained that the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the project description or the renderings that were shown to the HHWNC, and that the height had increased by 30%.  She said that the project complied with existing zoning and that the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) had the final authority over what was permitted.  I asked how the DCP could allow this since noise impacts from rooftop decks weren’t considered in the environmental assessment.  She replied that the DCP had considered operational impacts from the project and had approved the assessment.  Finally, I pointed out that the rooftop decks posed significant potential health risks to the future tenants.  Her response was that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not require the DCP to consider impacts to those who would live on the site in the future.

I was angry, but not really surprised.  I’ve realized over the last few years that the folks at the DCP really don’t care about how proposed projects will affect the lives of the people who live in this city.  It’s all about keeping the developers happy.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near the project site.

Who knows why I even went on to contact LADBS.  I guess I must get some kind of sick kick out of banging my head against a wall.  Anyway, here’s their response.

 

The roof top decks and the overall building height of 44.9 feet is allowed by right, therefore LADBS does have the ability to approve the project as proposed.  The Zoning Variance reviewed by City Planning only addressed a parking requirement.  City Planning has approved the plans for the current project.

LADBS’ authority to approve projects is based on Building Code requirements.  The Building Code does not have any restrictions for a rooftop deck near a freeway.

 

So according to LADBS, they did everything by the book.  They don’t see a problem.

But there is a problem here.  It’s bad enough that a developer is allowed to present one project to the community and then build something substantially different.  But it’s even worse when a developer is allowed to create a clear health risk for the people who will live in the finished building.

I tried arguing with the bureaucrats who approve these projects and got nowhere.  Maybe it’s time to take it to the higher-ups.  If you feel there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, I hope you’ll feel strongly enough about it to write an e-mail to the three people listed below.  And please use the following subject line….

Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks at 2111 Cahuenga

Eric Garcetti, Mayor

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

Vince Bertoni, Director of City Planning

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Frank M. Bush, LADBS General Manager

frank.bush@lacity.org

RD Tight

 

 

Tenants Kicked Out as Landlords Cash In

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Ellis Act evictions are so common in LA these days that I’ve gotten used to hearing reports of landlords kicking their tenants out. It happens all the time. As speculative development continues to push property values higher, property owners are eager to cash in. Over 20,000 units have been removed from the rental market through the Ellis Act since 2000. And in addition to the thousands of tenants who’ve been kicked out under Ellis, it’s likely that thousands more have lost their apartments because they were bamboozled by unscrupulous landlords using cash-for-keys scams.

In the course of writing this blog I’ve met a number of people who’ve either already been evicted or are facing eviction. So when I went to meet a group of tenants who live in a small building on Las Palmas it seemed like a familiar scenario. The owner plans to demolish the existing structure in order to build a 7-story mixed-use project, and so the people currently living there have got to go. The breadwinners in these families are working hard to make ends meet, and odds are they’re getting by on paychecks that add up to well below LA’s median income. While I’m sure they’re worried about getting evicted, one thing that encouraged me is that they seemed much more angry than scared. They’re not going to take this lying down.

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Some of the tenants facing eviction.

The tenants are paying much less than the area’s median rent, but they’re also getting next to nothing in terms of repairs and maintenance. I could see walking into the building that the owner wasn’t taking care of it properly. The tenants told me a number of stories about problems with their units that the landlord was either slow to fix or didn’t fix at all. My guess is that he’s been sitting on the property, waiting for the right deal to come along, and didn’t see any point in spending money on upkeep. I should mention that he has laid out some cash to fix up a few of the units, just not the ones that are occupied by the current tenants. You may be asking, why would he do that? The answer is simple. He’s posting the refurbished units on the net as short-term rentals. This is a pretty common practice. Landlords are doing it all over the city, and it’s more or less legal unless the tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act. So when we talk about a shortage of apartments in LA, we have to remember that there are probably thousands of units that are actually being used as unofficial hotel rooms.

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Council District 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain.

My friend Sylvie Shain came by to talk with the tenants. Sylvie is running for the CD 13 council seat, in large part because of her concern over LA’s affordable housing crisis. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be evicted, having been forced out of her apartment by owners who planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Sylvie spent over an hour with the tenants, giving them info on what protections they had under the law and helping them figure out their next steps.

Several days later I went to a neighborhood council meeting on the proposed project. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the impacts of the new structure, not the eviction of the current tenants, but it’s hard to separate the two. The owner has said that he will reserve seven units in the new building to replace the seven units that are currently occupied in the old building, and that he will offer them to the current tenants at the price they’re now paying. This may sound like a good deal, but there are a few problems with it. First, the owner hasn’t actually signed an agreement, which means he’s under no obligation to honor these terms. Second, while the owner is offering to replace seven units, there are actually fifteen units in the existing building that are covered by the rent stabilization ordinance (RSO). His deal would mean the loss of eight more RSO units. This may not sound like a lot by itself, but thousands of RSO units have been taken off the market in recent years, which is one of the reasons affordable housing is so scarce these days. Third, the owner knows that the new structure will probably take a couple of years to complete. If the current tenants get forced out, there’s a good chance they won’t find anything they can afford in LA. It’s entirely possible that by the time the proposed project is completed, none of them will still be living in the area, and he won’t have to offer them anything.

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Neighborhood Council meeting on the proposed project.

Then there’s the way the Department of City Planning (DCP) is trying to push this project through. They’re trying to approve it with a categorical exemption, which means they’re arguing that because it’s in-fill development and conforms to the current zoning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) doesn’t require an environmental assessment. And to make that argument, they cite CEQA Guidelines, Section 15332. But CEQA requires that the project meet a number of conditions in order to grant the exemption, including the following….

Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.

Traffic is already getting to be a problem on Las Palmas. Formerly a quiet residential street with one lane going each direction, in recent years it’s become a short cut for drivers looking to avoid congestion on Highland during rush hour. And traffic on Las Palmas is going to get a lot worse, because in addition to this project there are two others about the same size that are currently under construction, one just to the north and one just to the south of the existing building. But wait, there’s more. At the corner of Las Palmas and Franklin work recently began on a complex that wil contain over 100 units. In other words, if this project is approved, the neighborhood will gain about 300 units, which will definitely have a significant impact on traffic.*

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Traffic northbound on Las Palmas at rush hour.

What’s more, the proposed project is about 500 feet away from the facility that houses both the Canyon Pre-School and the Las Palmas Sr. Center. Children and seniors are known to be sensitive receptors, and to say that there will be no significant impacts to air quality or noise levels during construction is ridiculous. The kids and seniors at this small facility already suffered an onslaught of construction dust and noise when work on the project at Las Palmas and Franklin began last year. But the DCP apparently just doesn’t give a damn, and so they’re trying to rush this project through with no environmental review whatsoever.

After the neighborhood council meeting, I contacted the DCP hearing officer to find out what the timetable was for the project’s approval. It’s tentatively scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission on April 13, though it could get pushed back. Meanwhile, the tenants wait and wonder whether they’ll have to find a new place to live, in a city where rents are spiralling higher every year.

*
Some housing advocates may be cheered by this news, but don’t get too excited. The vast majority of these units will be well beyond the reach of those making the area’s median income, $34,807 a year. [Source: LA Times, Measuring income along L.A.’s Metro stations by Kyle Kim and Sandra Poindexter, March 4, 2016]

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View of construction site from Highland.

Fantasy and Reality

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Last week a friend of mine called to tell me he’d just seen La La Land. The movie knocked him out, and he urged me to see it. I didn’t need too much urging, since I’d already heard good stuff about it. So last night I went down to the Arclight to see what all the fuss was about.

I loved the movie. I was hooked from the opening sequence, a massive dance number in the middle of a freeway traffic jam. In fact, it started off so well I was afraid the makers wouldn’t be able to sustain that level of energy and creativity throughout. But I didn’t need to worry. Writer/director Damien Chazelle shows amazing skill and style. I was completely swept up in this archetypal Hollywood romance, and pulled into the lives of the struggling actress and the stubborn musician.

I was so completely involved that I was totally bummed when the film stopped abruptly and the theatre’s fire alarm started sounding. But we all got up and went outside. The courtyard was packed and it was freezing cold while we waited to see what would happen. Fortunately, the fire department showed up right away and resolved the problem quickly. (I never found out what triggered the alarm.) We were back inside within twenty minutes.

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La La Land is a lovely fantasy about Los Angeles. While no one would mistake it for a realistic picture of this crazy town, it was good to see a movie that focussed on the positive rather than the negative. There’s plenty to hate in LA, but also plenty to love. Chazelle celebrates the city’s beauty and history without sliding into maudlin sentimentality. And while La La Land certainly doesn’t show the ugliest or scariest aspects of life in LA, it spends a fair amount of time delving into the downside. The two main characters are both struggling to get a break, and the film doesn’t shy away from their disappointment, frustration and bitterness. And while the movie features plenty of the shallow, superficial types that are often associated with LA, I liked the fact that it focussed on two people who are passionate about their art. Those people live here, too, even though we don’t see them on the screen too often.

I felt elated when I walked out of the theatre. The reality we’re living these days is so damn scary, it was good to see a movie that showed how joyous life can be. But going back home I passed through the real Hollywood. Walking down those streets on a cold December night it was clear that the divide between success and failure, wealth and poverty, is much wider, much more stark, than anything we see on the big screen. It’s great when you can settle down in a dark theatre and escape into a movie. But when the movie’s over, the world is still waiting for you outside.

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Traffic-Oriented Development

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For over a decade people at City Hall have been talking about transit-oriented development (TOD). In theory, if we create high-density residential and commercial developments near transit centers, people will be encouraged to take busses and trains instead of driving their cars. Makes sense, right? So for years the City has been telling us we have to build up instead of out, that we need to go vertical instead of horizontal. And they’ve approved a slew of high-rises, all the while insisting that this will get people out of cars and onto transit.

Before I go any further, I’d like you to watch a video. It lasts about twelve minutes, and it was shot during rush hour not too far from Hollywood and Vine.

I hope the video makes my point clear.* The City keeps approving high-rises, and when communities complain that congestion will get worse, planners and politicians invariably say that the people who live and/or work in these buildings will surely take transit. But they’ve been saying that for over a decade now, and it ain’t working. The MTA station at Hollywood and Vine is a hub for a number of bus lines, as well as the subway. But these people are all driving right past it.

I’m not against TOD, but to make it work, you’ve got to do some planning. Instead of creating a well thought out framework for all this development, the City keeps dumping project after project in the Hollywood area. Mayor Garcetti will tell you that the City did produce the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU), and residents sued to overturn it. That’s true. Among the HCPU’s many shortcomings, the population figure it was based on was inflated by about 10%, in spite of the fact that US Census numbers were readily available. The judge who threw the plan out called it “fatally flawed”.

To give you an idea of how little City Hall cares about planning, let’s go back to those two buildings in the video. The residential high-rise on the southwest corner is just getting started, and the hotel on the northeast corner isn’t quite finished. But look at how bad traffic is already, long before these projects are completed. Unbelievably, the City is considering approval of a third high-rise at the very same intersection. How clueless can you get?!

As I said in the video, I don’t own a car and depend on transit to get around. I support planning to encourage transit use. But TOD isn’t working in LA. Why? I think primarily it’s because that’s not really what the City is building. If our elected officials were really interested in building TOD, they’d be pushing high-density housing made up mostly of affordable units. But instead, the City has been encouraging developers to build high-priced housing by offering them generous entitlements.

I got on the Department of City Planning web site and took a look at multi-family projects in Hollywood and North Hollywood that have been built near Red Line stations since the subway was completed. The Lofts and The Gallery at Noho Commons combined contain 724 units. Eastown, when the second phase is completed, will have over 1,000. The Jefferson has 270, and is the only one that offers any affordable housing, 27 units. So out of about 2,000 apartments, only 27 are accessible to people in lower income brackets. And if you’re not one of the lucky few to snag one of low cost units, you can expect to spend at least $2,000 a month for a one bedroom. Let’s not even talk about what it might cost to live at The Vermont, which sits just across from the Vermont/Wilshire station. And call it a hunch, but I don’t think the massive Wilshire Grand Tower, which is rising up next to the 7th/Figueroa station, will be offering any affordable units at all.

According to a story published by the LA Times earlier this year (Measuring Income along LA’s Metro Stations, March 4, 2016), the median income in almost all communities served by the Red Line is well below the County median of $55,870, ranging roughly from $22,000 to $46,000 a year. (Universal City is the lone exception, with residents there making well above the County median.) For the people in the lowest income bracket, renting an apartment at the newer “TOD” buildings would consume pretty much all their earnings, and even at the higher end of the scale it would mean spending over half what they make in a year. The City says these high-density projects encourage transit use, but most transit riders couldn’t afford to live in them.

Could this be one of the reasons that transit ridership is lower now than it was back in 1985? There may be many reasons for the decline, but you’ve got to wonder why the MTA is serving fewer people than it did three decades ago. The drop in ridership is even more disturbing when you realize that the population of LA County (the area served by the MTA) has grown by over a million since 1985. Does anyone see a problem here? City Hall has been telling us for years that their policies will get people off the road and onto transit. Instead, we’ve seen a net loss in transit ridership since the eighties, in spite of the fact that the population has continued to climb. And the traffic that used to just clog the main thoroughfares is now spilling over onto side streets.

The City’s claim that they’re promoting transit-oriented density is bogus. What they’re really doing is allowing developers who spend a fortune lobbying City Hall to cash in on projects that don’t serve the majority of Angelenos. They’re backing projects geared towards the affluent, which is what developers want because that’s where the highest profits are. Meanwhile lines of cars sit on our streets and freeways at rush hour, burning fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

You call this transit-oriented development? I call it a disgusting sham.

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Just in case you’re thinking traffic is bad because it’s a Hollywood Bowl night, it’s not. The video was shot on Tuesday, October 25. Nothing was on the schedule that evening. But I can tell you the back-up on these streets can get way worse when something is happening at the Bowl.

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I Can’t Vote for Measure M

Construction moves forward on MTA's Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

Construction moves forward on MTA’s Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

I ride public transit almost every day. I really believe we need to invest in building a better transit system. And I used to think we were doing that, but not any more.

Measure M, the LA County Traffic Improvement Plan, is an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things. By adding another half cent to our sales tax, the County hopes to fund a variety of projects, with a good part of the money going toward enlarging the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s rail system. The MTA has already embarked on an ambitious program of building new rail lines and expanding others. You’d think that would be a good thing, but looking at the facts, I’m really not so sure.

For years now the MTA has been building rail all over LA County. First we got the Red Line and the Purple Line, then the Green, Blue and Gold Lines. The Expo Line was recently extended west, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line is currently under construction. You’d think that with this massive investment in rail, taking public transit would be so easy and fast that everyone would be jumping on board.

But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, transit ridership in LA County is lower than it was 30 years ago. When the LA Times reported this disturbing fact at the beginning of the year, the article sparked a lot of heated discussion. Some claimed that the Times was giving a distorted view. Others looked to the future, saying that stats would get better with time. But in the reading I did, there was one crucial fact that no one commented on. The County’s population has grown by over a million since 1990. To my mind, when you take that into account, there’s only one conclusion you can reach. Our current approach has been a disaster. If the population has grown by more than 10% over the past 30 years, how can we say that a decline in ridership during the same period represents anything but failure.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

There are a lot of different theories floating around as to why ridership hasn’t grown along with the system, and I’m sure there are a number of factors in play. But I think one of the most important factors is the City of LA’s insane approach to planning. I read a lot of the stuff that comes out of City Hall, and over and over I hear the refrain that transit and land use must be considered together. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It would make sense to think about where you’re putting housing at the same time as you think about where the next rail line goes. In theory, people could just step out of their apartment, walk down to the platform and catch a train wherever they’re going. Who needs a car?

The problem is, when the housing starts at $2,000 a month, and often goes much higher, you’re really not building housing for the people who use public transit. For the most part the people who depend on the MTA can’t afford that kind of rent. And the people who can pay that much are more likely to own cars. What’s even worse, as the rail network has expanded, City Hall’s policies have actively encouraged gentrification around new rail stops. It used to be pretty much anybody could afford to live in Hollywood. Not any more. As the Department of City Planning approves an endless parade of high-end housing projects and chic hotels, as they continue to hand out liquor permits to trendy restaurants and clubs, rents keep spiralling higher and the demographic most likely to use transit is being squeezed out. A similar scenario has already played out in North Hollywood, Downtown, and Highland Park, and you can look for more of the same in Leimert Park and Boyle Heights in a few years. So while City Hall claims to be thinking about transportation and land use together, in reality their policies are driving transit riders farther away from transit hubs.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another problem I have with Measure M is the fact a large portion of the funding goes toward road and freeway improvements, and this is something many people have commented on. There are those transit critics who complain that the MTA is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, but they never seem to mention that a huge share of our tax dollars also goes to subsidizing travel by car. If we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, then our focus should be on investing in public transit. But Measure M continues our current policy of investing in both at the same time. How’s this working? Well, our recent experience with widening the San Diego Freeway tells the story. After years of work and millions of dollars, traffic is still awful. We do need to maintain roads and freeways, since busses travel on both, but massive investment in “upgrades” is just encouraging people to keep driving their cars.

I’d love to see us build a transit system that made travelling by rail and bus attractive to a majority of Angelenos. But that isn’t what’s been happenning. Instead, a bizarre tangle of policies has led to a decline in transit use even as the County has continued to grow. The City of LA seems dead set on continuing its drive to build upscale urban enclaves, forcing low-income Angelenos away from transit hubs. And for all the money Measure M would put into transit, it would also spend a lot of money on keeping people in their cars.

Sorry. I can’t vote for Measure M.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Protesters in front of CNN building on Sunset.

Protesters in front of CNN building on Sunset.

If you haven’t heard about the protests by Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), don’t feel bad. A lot of people haven’t gotten the news because the mainstream media was slow to report the story, and still isn’t giving it the attention it deserves. That’s why a group of Indian activists showed up in front of CNN’s offices on Sunset Blvd. on Saturday to make their voices heard.

To give you a quick update, Energy Access Partners (EAP) is pushing for the construction of a pipeline which would carry crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana down to South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. The Standing Rock Sioux and other Indian tribes are fighting the project, citing damage to sacred grounds and the potential for contamination of the Missouri River if the pipeline should rupture.

Protesters claim the mainstream media has failed to highlight the risks posed by the DAPL.

Protesters claim the mainstream media has failed to highlight the risks posed by the DAPL.

I don’t know the area and my knowledge of Native American religion is almost non-existent, so I won’t comment on the first claim. But it doesn’t take much more than common sense to realize that concerns about a possible rupture and massive environmental damage are absolutely valid. EAP claims that the pipeline would be safe, but just last month there was a spill in Alabama which saw the release of over 300,000 gallons of fuel. A link to the story in The Guardian is below. Funny how the incident didn’t get much attention in the US.

Pipeline Rupture in Alabama from The Guardian

And Californians will remember the pipeline leak earlier this summer which spilled 30,000 gallons of crude.

Oil Spill in California from Alternet

But let’s cut to the chase. Pipeline accidents happen all the time. Here’s a list from Wikipedia documenting hundreds that have happened just in the US since 2000. Many of them are small, with no significant damage to life or property, but the list contains a number of major incidents.

List of US Pipeline Accidents Since 2000 from Wikipedia

The petroleum industry keeps saying these accidents won’t happen, yet somehow they keep happening, and sometimes the damage to the environment is severe. What’s worse, when there is a disaster, the oil companies do everything they can to deny responsibility, and spend years in court fighting to reduce their liability.

EAP claims that the pipeline will promote energy independence for the US, but really they’re just feeding the country’s addiction to oil. The best way to foster energy independence is to reduce our use of fossil fuels. A huge body of evidence points to the conclusion that our reliance on fossil fuels is causing the climate to change. Glaciers are disappearing, the snowpacks are receding, and the polar caps are melting. And EAP wants to build another pipeline to boost our domestic oil supply? It’s obvious they just don’t give a damn.

Lydia Ponce, of AIM SoCal, (right) posing with her sister.

Lydia Ponce, of AIM SoCal, (right) posing with her sister.

I spoke to Lydia Ponce of the American Indian Movement (AIM), Southern California. She talked about the multiple incidents where police have used force against the protesters at Standing Rock. She also pointed out that the DAPL is just the latest episode in this country’s long history of allowing big business to exploit land and resources at the expense of native people. It’s actually been going on since the US was founded. Is it ever going to stop?

If you want to support the Indian communities that are fighting the DAPL, contact your elected officials now. Let Congress and the President know that we can’t afford the risks this pipeline poses, and we can’t afford to let oil companies continue to poison our water and our skies.

Click the link below to find out how to contact your elected officials.

Find Your Elected Officials

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