An Evening at Angels Flight

At the golden hour, Gordon Pattison gazes into the Angels Flight station house
At the golden hour, Gordon Pattison gazes into the Angels Flight station house

Last evening, we met on Bunker Hill, old friends coming together for an old friend, Angels Flight. As the sun set, the orange and black station house along with the cars, Olivet and Sinai, were bathed in its soft, orange glow. As the evening darkened, Angels Flight’s arches and cars were lit by the low amber light of dozens of incandescent bulbs. It was a magical time, and for a moment, I was transported back to the time when I lived on Bunker Hill in its old Victorian neighborhood in the 1940’s – 1960’s. That neighborhood has been gone for more than 50 years now, and Angels Flight is all we have to remind us of it.

As I looked out over the city from the top of Angels Flight, the twinkling lights of Grand Central Market came on, beckoning to us longingly. The Market stays open until 10:00 pm now, and it was filled with people enjoying its attractions. I thought, how nice it would be to board Angels Flight to go down there as I did years ago, have a bite to eat and join the people who looked to be having such a good time. They seemed miles away, though, at the bottom of long, daunting flights of stairs. That’s exactly why Col. Eddy built Angels Flight 115 years ago, to join Bunker Hill and Downtown. What foresight! What a wonderful service to fill a civic need! And for decades, Angels Flight filled that need happily, faithfully, asking for little in return.

But sadly, Angels Flight is not running. For two years now, Angels Flight has sat quietly, waiting patiently for Los Angeles to come back to it. While Angelenos go busily about their lives, Angels Flight sits forlorn and vulnerable, largely ignored by the community it once served and we hope will serve again.

Richard Schave and Gordon Pattison scrub graffiti off Olivet
Richard Schave and Gordon Pattison scrub graffiti off Olivet

Angels Flight is not a nostalgic anachronism. It was and remains an important civic asset. Not just for its historic significance, but as an important piece of public transportation, carrying people from the heights of Bunker Hill to greater Downtown and back again.

When we came together at Angels Flight last evening, we came to pay attention to an old friend and to bear witness to its plight. We cleaned away graffiti that had thoughtlessly desecrated it. We had a 3-D scan done on Angels Flight so that anyone can board it online and take a vicarious ride. Angels Flight has served our city well and can again. But it needs our support and loving attention, or one day we will drive by and wonder why it’s not there anymore. Then all we will have are photographs and memories. It’s a lot more fun to actually ride it.

Outdoor Toilets on Bunker Hill?

There is a lot of misinformation about the old Bunker Hill. For instance, I have heard it said that there were outdoor toilets on Bunker Hill before it was redeveloped in the 1960’s. I lived on Bunker Hill in the 1940’s – 1960’s, and I’d like to set the record straight. I never saw any outdoor toilets, and to my knowledge, there were none. I think this misinformation may stem in some measure from this photo from the LAPL photo collection. It was taken in 1967 during the time when the buildings on Bunker Hill were being torn down. In the foreground is a toilet identified in the information accompanying the photo as an “outhouse.” Looming behind it is the Union Bank building. I have firsthand knowledge of this toilet because I used it many times. It was not an “outhouse.” It did not sit over an open hole in the ground. Instead, as the photo shows, it was a modern flush toilet attached to a sewer line. It does appear to be outdoors, but it is only “outdoors” because the building to which it was attached has been torn down. That building was the former carriage house behind the Victorian house known as the Castle which my family owned. The carriage house had been turned into two apartments many years before. I can only speculate as to why this toilet remained after the adjacent and neighboring buildings were torn down and taken away. Maybe it was kept so that the demolition workers could use it until the work was completed, thereby saving the foreman the hassle and cost of renting another port-a-potty.
Toilet Behind Castle Carriage House

A day trip to 19th Century Los Angeles

The Los Angeles we live in today is an imposter. Whereas many older American cities have managed to keep at least some of their 19th Century character, Los Angeles has not. This imposter stole Los Angeles’ 19th Century identity. Some of its citizens acquiesced to the theft, some of them even abetted it, a few protested it, but ultimately they all let it happen. The theft didn’t happen overnight. Instead it happened gradually over time while they were busy with their everyday lives and weren’t paying attention. It happened in bits and pieces so that as they became familiar with the new parts they forgot what had been there before and didn’t notice the difference. Eventually they were joined by new citizens who thought it had always been the way it is now. Why was this done? It was all done in the name of being modern and up to date.

The Los Angeles I was born into years ago was far different from the one we live in today. Because much that had been built in the 19th and early 20th Century was still here when I was young, I lived in Victorian Los Angeles, up on Bunker Hill. I counted among my friends people who were young in the later part of the 19th Century. In Victorian times, the city’s skyline was dominated by the old Los Angeles High School and the old Court House up on Fort Moore and Pound Cake Hills, by the tower of the old City Hall down on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd Streets, by the State Normal School, and by the Bradbury, Crocker, Brunson, and Rose mansions, and the Castle up on the spine of Bunker Hill. I lived in the Castle on South Bunker Hill Avenue, a street lined with other lovely Victorian houses. It was a wonderfully enchanting residential neighborhood with a long history, where all your needs could be met within walking distance or via Angels Flight to greater Downtown.

None of this remains today, and the hills have been dug up, shaved down and carted away, replaced by gleaming towers of steel and glass. But come with us as Nathan Marsak peels away this modern overlay to reveal the old Bunker Hill and the old Los Angeles. We meet at Grand Central Market housed in architect John Parkinson’s Victorian era Homer Laughlin building. Walk with us on Bunker Hill’s historic streets and see Angels Flight. Together we will find that old Bunker Hill and old Los Angeles aren’t really gone. Instead, they float ethereally in memory and in our hearts above Hope and Grand, Olive and Hill.

Welcome to My Bunker Hill

Come walk with me on Bunker Hill. I don’t mean now, for we won’t pass California Plaza or Wells Fargo Center. We won’t see MOCA or Disney Hall. We will see Angels Flight, but it will be on the corner of 3rd Street and Hill next to the tunnel, and it will be running, so we can take a ride. I mean come with me to my Bunker Hill, the old Bunker Hill, the one where I lived in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s when it was a residential area. Of course, Bunker Hill was much older than that. It was developed in the late 19th Century when its lovely old Victorian buildings were built. That was its charm. Every building was different, all with intersecting angles, curved verandas, and turrets, domes, carved details, light and shadows. And they all had names like the Chaspeak, the Argyle, the Nugent, the Lovejoy, the Melrose, the Salt Box, and the Castle.

Board Angels Flight with me as we so often did on shopping trips to downtown. Sit next to me in my seat, the open one at the back of Sinai or Olivet where I always sat. Our fellow passengers are my neighbors. In the morning or early evening they would be people commuting between their homes on Bunker Hill and their jobs downtown. Other times they might be mothers with their children on their way to shop downtown just like my mother and I did at Grand Central Market or the department stores and myriad other shops. In the evening, there would be couples going to see a movie at one of the movie palaces down on Broadway. Many passengers are elderly residents of Bunker Hill who were called “pensioners” at the time. Today we would call them the elderly poor, for Bunker Hill in those days had become the home of lower income residents. It was also home to many artists and writers as well as a large number of first generation immigrants from Europe and South America. They all lived there because that’s where they could afford to live and because most all your needs could be met within walking distance. Many residents didn’t own cars, they didn’t need them.

On our way up Bunker Hill on Angels Flight we pass the Sunshine Apartments where Burt Lancaster, Dan Duryea, and Yvonne De Carlo plotted the armored car robbery in the movie Criss Cross.’ As we get off the car at the top, remember to put your nickel, or your ticket if you are a regular rider and bought a ticket book, in the slot at the station house where the operator of the world’s shortest railway sat wearing his railroad cap. Nice fellow, but didn’t talk much. Now we cross Olive Street and walk West up 3rd Street through the small commercial area. We pass a café, a shoe repair, a laundry, the Budget Basket market, and Angels Flight Pharmacy. Maybe we stop in to purchase something or just to talk to the grocer or the pharmacist. Maybe we buy a newspaper from the one armed man who runs the newsstand there at 3rd and Grand.There are always a couple of neighborhood locals sitting on milk crates smoking cigarettes chatting with him and passersby.

Now let’s cross Grand Avenue and go cattycorner to the Nugent Delicatessen. Because this a hot August day, I like to stop in and get a bottle of Pepsi Cola from the cooler. Somehow, it’s the best Pepsi I ever had and it’s only 10 cents. Dick Powell thought so, because he walked in there in the movie, Cry Danger’ right past the cooler with the bottles inside.

Now we walk up the short hill to where 3rd Street dead ends at South Bunker Hill Avenue. There is a little park on the West side of the street where the benches are filled with elderly gentlemen of the neighborhood feeding the pigeons, playing chess, reading the papers, and discussing the ways of the world. Even on this hot day they are all dressed in suits with ties and wearing hats. As we stand there looking West, on our right is the Alta Vista Apartments where another of our neighbors, the writer John Fante (and his alter-ego, Arturo Bandini), lived some of his best loved, if impoverished, days.

Now let’s turn and head south on South Bunker Hill Avenue because we are almost home to my house, the “Castle.” My grandmother bought it and the Victorian next door in 1937 and my father inherited them when she died. Her brother, Mickey, owned the “Salt Box” next door. Another brother, Laurence, owned the Crestholme down on the corner of 4th and South Bunker Hill Avenue. The “Castle” was a beautiful 3 story Victorian built in the 1880’s when Bunker Hill was the home of Los Angeles’ elite. Soon after the turn of the 20th Century, it became a rooming house when the neighborhood changed. We rent out rooms to our tenants, most of whom are elderly. As we get to the “Castle,” we turn and go up the walk, climb the front stairs and cross the veranda to the stained glass double front doors. Turning the cast iron door knob, we go through to the front entry hall, under the chandelier, past the grand staircase and into the front parlor. I am home in the benevolent embrace of this grand old Victorian. Like all the other Victorians on Bunker Hill, it had a quiet dignity and timelessness that I miss.

Bunker Hill was a mature, quiet urban neighborhood with well-tended yards. It was not the “blighted slum” that propaganda of the time said it was. Instead, it was a tranquil oasis above the busy city down below. If I still lived in the Castle, I’d invite you in. But I don’t live there anymore. In fact, none of us who once made up this neighborhood community lives there now because Old Bunker Hill was ripped from the heart of Los Angeles 50 years ago. Before too many more years, it will pass from Los Angeles’ living memory. But Old Bunker Hill isn’t really gone. Instead, it floats ethereally in memory and in our hearts above Hope and Grand, Olive and Hill.