Work Continues on Sixth Street Bridge

The Sixth Street Bridge’s arches rising above the surrounding landscape.

Work on the new Sixth Street Bridge is still moving along.  Originally scheduled for completion in 2019, it’s now supposed to be finished by summer of 2022.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the progress of large infrastructure projects.  It’s also no surprise that the cost of the project has risen from $420 million to $588 million.  But even though repeated delays and cost overruns are fairly common with projects of this kind, it seems like LA is especially prone to these problems.  (I guess it could be worse.  Just take a look at the California High Speed Rail.)

LA River running beneath the Sixth Street Bridge.

When the bridge is done, there are plans to create a 12-acre park within the bed of the LA River, with public art and recreational programs.  I hate to be cynical, but it will be interesting to see what actually materializes.  While the FTA and CalTrans are helping with funds for the construction of the bridge, I don’t know if they’re also kicking in for the park.  I mention this because the LA Recreation & Parks Department is chronically underfunded, and can’t even maintain existing parks.  I’m also concerned because it seems some of the features that were supposed to be included in the new bridge have been cut.  The original design had protected bike lanes.  Apparently those are gone.  And I’ve seen some chatter on-line about the removal of the stairs that would have connected the bridge to the park, but I haven’t been able to find any confirmation.

Downtown side of the bridge.

But the biggest cause for concern is that the completion of the bridge will bring further gentrification and displacement on the east side of the LA River.  Many residents of Boyle Heights and surrounding communities are worried that the Sixth Street Bridge will bring another wave of real estate investors looking to cash in.  The eviction of the seniors at Sakura Gardens is not a good sign.

Many people are excited about the new Sixth Street Bridge and its promised benefits.  I hope their optimism is justified.  When I first heard about the project years ago, I was excited, too.  I have to say that now my hopes are outweighed by a deep cynicism.  The City of LA’s leaders have been promising a more livable, equitable city for years.  Instead it seems that the population is increasingly divided and increasingly desperate.  Bridges are supposed to bring people together, but I’m worried that this one will end up driving people apart.

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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Old and New

DSC02587There were two things I’d been wanting to do for a while. The first was to visit the Natural History Museum to see their show on LA history. The second was to take some photos of the Sixth Street Bridge, which is slated to be demolished and replaced, although that may not happen for a while. So Tuesday morning I took the Red Line down to Seventh and Figueroa, where I transferred to the Expo Line. Pretty soon I was standing on the platform at the Exposition Park station.

It might have been twenty years or more since I’d been to Exposition Park. Walking toward the fountain at the center of the gardens was sort of like walking into the past. In part, that’s because of my memory of visiting the museums as a child. But also, the three buildings that border the park are massive reminders of the ornate, imposing architecture that was considered appropriate for museums a hundred years ago. In fact, the Natural History Museum is celebrating its one hundredth anniversary this year. Their web site offers a brief history, which you can read by clicking here.

The photo above shows the current entrance to the museum, which presents a modern facade. It’s an interesting contrast to the NHM’s original entrance, which is what you see in this next photo.


The exhibition I went to see, Becoming LA, was really good. The curators did a nice job of presenting the area’s multi-layered history, weaving together the threads of all the diverse groups that made the city what it is. Of course Becoming LA is just the latest in the recent onslaught of shows about Los Angeles. Local museums have been giving a lot of attention to the city in the past few years. I’m all in favor of highlighting LA’s art, culture, etc., but at times it seems like we’re crossing the line into bombastic self-promotion. Which, I guess, isn’t really that surprising.

After I was finished with the museum, I took the bus north on Vermont to Olympic, where I had to transfer. This put me right in the heart of Koreatown. There’s an interesting vibe in many parts of Koreatown, which I think has to do with the zillions of small businesses competing for your attention. There are numerous strip malls, and they all seem to be bursting with restaurants, karaoke bars, tech retail outlets, nail salons, etc.. Here’s one example….


But the look of Koreatown is changing. In the image below you’re looking up Vermont toward Wilshire, where you can see two high-rise towers that combine residential and retail. I understand some Koreatown residents aren’t too happy about the wave of high-density development that’s hitting their area. I doubt that bothers the City Council, though, and it certainly doesn’t bother Mayor Garcetti. They are all one hundred percent committed to serving the developers who put them in office. Click here for more info about this massive project.


The bus showed up and I got on. A few minutes later I got off at the end of the line, Sixth and Maple. I headed up Maple and over to Wall. As I was walking along, I heard a voice behind me.

“Excuse me. Are you a tourist?”

He must’ve seen the camera I was holding.

“No, I’ve lived in LA all my life.”

“Oh. Cuz I was just wondering if you knew this is a really horrible area.”

I laughed, but he had a point. The street was filled with people who were living on the sidewalk. The desperation was palpable. I can’t say I was really afraid, though. I spend a fair amount of time downtown, and I’ve walked through skid row now and again. If it was night, I probably would be worried. But in the harsh light of day, these people looked too beaten down, too demoralized, to be a threat.

We walked along together for a block or so. I told him I had the camera because I wanted to shoot photos of the Sixth Street Bridge. He knew the bridge was going to be replaced, but he felt it would be a long time before work actually started. Somehow we got talking about the LA City Council, and we both agreed they have absolutely no respect for the law. Interesting how the one thing that seems to bind Angelenos together is our absolute distrust of the people at City Hall.

Then we went our separate ways. I headed over to Little Tokyo for a bowl of udon and a beer. Then I started walking down Central to Sixth.

It was late afternoon. The streets were mostly deserted. There were few cars and fewer people. I walked past the Woori Market’s empty parking lot. It’s been closed for a while. There were large warehouses, like Los Angeles Cold Storage. A couple small restaurants. A lot of places have security fences, and a few were topped with barbed wire.

The bridge rises up over the warehouses and the railroad tracks. As you get near the mid-point, the landscape below stretches out for miles in every direction. Here’s a shot of the bridge looking back toward downtown.


And here’s another looking down on the LA River.


Freight cars covered with graffiti sit lined up below.


And here’s another shot of the downtown area.


On the other side of the bridge, Sixth Street becomes Whittier Blvd., which leads you into Boyle Heights. I waited for the bus in front of Carnitas Michoacán #3, which seemed to be doing steady business. And then the seven twenty showed up to take me home.