Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Angels Flight

Angels Flight
Angels Flight today

One of downtown LA’s many gems is Angels Flight, a funicular railway that connects Grand Central Market and the Historic Core with the Bunker Hill Financial District. It closed in 2013, due to safety issues, and it felt disappointing to have to explain to guests when we first began doing tours that the neglected, graffiti-covered trolleys were one of the best remaining artifacts of Victorian Los Angeles. Unused and at risk, it seemed to reinforce the notion that this city cared little for historic preservation.

One of the best kept secrets of LA is that it is quite hilly. For some reason first-time visitors almost always seem to have the idea that LA is flat (despite such well-known neighborhoods as Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Hills). San Francisco has the hills and Victorian houses and we have the beaches and palm-tree-lined boulevards, they imagine. Actually, we have all those things (and more) – as does SF.

But what is a hundred-year-old funicular doing in the middle of Los Angeles? And what’s the history of this lofty neighborhood, Bunker Hill, that looks down on the Historic Core from its glass and steel towers?

The modern city of Los Angeles was founded in 1781, a tiny outpost in the vast Spanish Empire. The dusty Wild-West pueblo was centered around what’s now known as the LA Plaza, near Union Station and for a hundred years that was the full extent of it. Locals would graze cattle and sheep on top of the dry and dusty ridge that was on the edge of town. There was a natural spring that arose on the hill’s Southern flank, where Central Public Library is now, which flowed down to today’s Pershing Square.

However, in 1876, the Transcontinental Railroad arrived in Los Angeles from San Francisco and the city, like many others in similar situations at that time, exploded. Within five years the population had doubled, from just five thousand when the first Southern Pacific train pulled in here, to over ten thousand residents. From there it quintupled to fifty-thousand in 1890 (meaning an incredible growth of ten times in just fourteen years). What this meant was that the city rapidly expanded Southwards, into what’s now the Historic Core. 

At the same time developer Prudent Beaudry, then Los Angeles’ mayor, found a way to pump water to the top of the hill. This made residential development possible and the wealthiest residents of LA soon began building increasingly grand mansions on Bunker Hill. Why there? It’s got the best views and, being higher, was generally a little cooler. Within a decade the long ridge was covered by large Victorian houses, evoking a similar feel to San Francisco.

Around the same time the area that’s now the Historic Core was changing, from a residential district outside the pueblo, to the main business district of newly important Los Angeles. In 1892 the Bradbury building was completed (owned by Lewis Bradbury, whose mansion stood on the top of Bunker Hill), then in 1896 the Ville de Paris department store opened (which is now Grand Central Market), to be followed by the Barclay Hotel, on the corner of Main and 4th Streets, in 1897.

Rather like in San Francisco, where the Silver Kings of Nob Hill invested in the first cable car companies, the wealthy residents of Bunker Hill (many of whom were from the same families) thought to develop something similar in Los Angeles. Accordingly, on January 1, 1901, Angels Flight was opened by Colonel J W Eddy, on the corner of Hill and 3rd Streets. It operated as a funicular – the weight of the car that’s going down pulling the other one that’s going up, with a little assistance if needed from a steam winch. The same year the 3rd Street Tunnel opened, right next to the Hill Street station, as the need arose for an easier connection between downtown and new towns in the Cahuenga Valley, such as Hollywood.

If you look at Bunker Hill today you may think a funicular unnecessary – it doesn’t seem that high. Well, forgetting the fact that even the seemingly modest ascent still leaves most people huffing and puffing by the time they reach the top, originally Bunker Hill was twice as high as it is today. Although, weirdly, Angels Flight didn’t go all the way to the top, stopping a distance below the rim of the hill. According to legend (and their website) it has the distinction of being the shortest railroad in the world, at just 298 feet.

Angels Flight was joined a few years later by Court Flight, another funicular that connected an even higher part of Bunker Hill with Broadway, between Temple and 1st Streets. Now it’s not even possible to see the hill that once stood there, as Grand Park only gently slopes up to the Music Center. Court Flight was destroyed in a fire in 1943 and never rebuilt. Bear in mind that Los Angeles had the most extensive regional train network in the world at the time, so this decision was something of an outlier.

The orange cars (named Sinai and Olivet, from the Bible) of Angels Flight became both a practical means of transit (right down to the ritzy stores and theatres on Broadway) and a much-loved sight through the Jazz Age. They appeared in several classic movies of the 1940’s and 50’s too, as the neighborhood became a favorite location of many Film Noir directors during the postwar era. My personal favorite is Criss Cross, an early Burt Lancaster thriller, in which his gang of thieves plan a heist in an apartment overlooking Angels Flight.

That, in itself, was a sign of how much the hilltop haven had changed by then. From being a luxury neighborhood, where silent-movie idols lived (like Harold Lloyd and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, to mention just two, in the 1910’s), to a breeding ground of new stars (like Anna May Wong in the 1920’s, who grew up above her parents’ laundry shop on North Figueroa), to finally becoming a place of urban poverty, decay, crime and hopelessness.

By the end of World War One the rich had begun selling up and moving out of the neighborhood, as the automobile began its long reign over Southern California. New subdivisions were going on sale, in places like Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, and wealthy residents didn’t need to be close to downtown anymore. The mansions were subdivided into apartments and rooming houses and the one-time resort hotels had to drop their prices and cater to a very different market. In fact, by the 1940’s, the neighborhood was one of the most densely populated in Los Angeles. Residents were overwhelmingly lower-income and working-class, a complete reversal of its original demographic at the beginning of the century.

Eventually, in 1955, Bunker Hill was classified as urban blight by the city and, under slum clearance laws introduced by President Truman. plans were laid to remake the area as a business district. Up until then Spring Street in downtown was known as ‘the Wall Street of the West’ (the LA stock exchange was there), but business leaders convinced city leaders that modern buildings were necessary, including Class A office towers like New York, or Los Angeles would lose its competitive edge. Construction was also beginning on the 101 Hollywood Freeway, which was designed to run right through Bunker Hill, necessitating vast tunneling operations – or simply blowing it up.

The whole quarter, with its beautiful Victorian homes, was erased over a ten-year period, save for three houses that were picked up and moved in one piece to nearby Heritage Square, in Montecito Heights. Within a few years two of them were destroyed in a fire, but you can still see one relic of Bunker Hill’s bygone bucolic past there. The hill itself was flattened and lowered by between fifty and a hundred feet.

Needless to say the wholesale redevelopment of the neighborhood didn’t usher in a new Golden Age for downtown, the opposite in fact. The wider area continued to suffer from residential and business flight to the suburbs. It turned out that the twenty-five thousand residents of Bunker Hill weren’t all criminals or just the feckless idle – they were the ones keeping downtown going by eating, shopping and generally doing stuff in the area. Once they were gone downtown declined even more, since workers in the offices in the new Financial District would drive into work from the suburbs, where they lived, and then leave at the end of the day, mostly never venturing into the wider area.

Finally, in 1969, Angels Flight was dismantled and put into storage, like a time capsule for future generations to discover. The railway was eventually restored, in 1996, a short distance away from where it had originally operated (now right opposite Grand Central Market). It remained open, on and off, for another fifteen years but, due in part to neglect, it closed again in 2011. It seemed as if it was never going to reopen again.

One major positive for the neighborhood – and Los Angeles – during this period, was the opening of first the Music Center, in 1962, then the other jewels in the Grand Avenue cultural quarter, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Colburn music school, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and most recently the Broad, in 2015.

Skip forward to 2017 and LA LA Land doesn’t quite win the Oscar, but gives us a glimpse of “what life could be like” (isn’t that what the movies do best?), when it shows Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sharing a romantic date on Angels Flight. Incredibly, it single-handedly rekindled the city’s love affair with its long-forgotten funicular (funnily enough the film didn’t have permits to shoot, since Angels Flight had been closed for safety reasons).

Local conservationists and downtown residents had lobbied for years for the city to fund restoration, but it took Hollywood, the industry that put LA on the map, to ignite the will for Angels Flight’s return. Since its reopening ceremony in August 2017 (at which I was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times), it has once again found itself as a crucial location for Los Angeles screen crime, featuring as the key murder scene in season four of the Bosch TV series.

Angels Flight reopening ceremony

Anybody visiting downtown should take a ride on Angels Flight, if they haven’t already, it’s a bit like taking a cable car in San Francisco – except that it’s way cheaper. A one-way ticket is a bargain at $1 (unless you have a Metro TAP card, in which case it’s just $0.50). If you pay the $2 return fare you’ll receive a 1920’s style souvenir ticket, to prove you’ve completed this Los Angeles must-do. Have lunch at Grand Central Market after taking this historic (one minute journey), we always do. Then buy a book at the nearby Last Bookstore.

Angels Flight and Grand Central Market

Now we use Angels Flight whenever we can: the LA in a Day, LA: Food + History + Design and Central Downtown LA tours each take this icon for a ride, and it’s always a highlight for guests. On the first two we even include the fare in the price of the tour, making it an even better deal!

If you have any feedback on Angels Flight please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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