Los Angeles Boulevard by Douglas R. Suisman

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Los Angeles Boulevard, Eight X-Rays of the Body Public
Douglas R. Suisman

Chapter 6: Torrent, The Boulevards Accelerate

The dirt paths which preceded the boulevards between the Los Angeles River and the sea bore the markings of a repetitive stomping by the human foot. These would kick away the tumbleweed and crush the seedlings which, as nature’s relentless front line, were forever trying to reclaim the path from men. When the Spanish appeared with their sharp leather heels and horses hooved in iron, the paths were soon marked by an even more emphatic stamp, and eventually became boundaries for the ranchos. In some places rude wooden fences confirmed the outlines of a newly furrowed landscape. This staccato pounding of foot and hoof was soon accompanied by the continuous rolling pressure of wheels, first wood and then iron, weighted down with freight and human cargo. But for all the energy of this road-clearing parade, a single downpour could convert the trails into a cementitious trap; the day’s sun might then harden the quagmire into peaks and ruts, a miniature volcanic protest against humanity’s quest for smoothness, and a constant brake on desired speeds.


The ancient solution to this challenge of surface transport had been to replace loose soil with tightly fitted stones, creating a roadbed whose hard and pulsating ride was compensated by its great reliability; but it was an operation which required a large work force and nearby quarries, and early Los Angeles had neither. In general, roadbeds remained unpaved, and overland rides in horse-drawn carriages were expected to be rough – in 1885 the L.A. Times wrote, “It is during but a few days of the year that the need of pavements is noticed”. 1 Los Angeles was only slightly worse than average in a nation which by 1880 had paved only half of its urban streets, even as the first skyscrapers began to rise. [2]


The rapid improvement, on the other hand, in the production of iron rails and specially fitted wheeled vehicles provided the first hint of a seductive new mobility with which architecture would soon have to reckon. By the 1860’s sophisticated horse-drawn machines were available to clear wide swaths across the landscape while workers dug up two parallel trenches, their spoils hauled away in carts pulled by donkeys. In the trenches were then laid down perpendicular rows of wooden ties to carry the new iron rails which, like feudal lords walking across the backs of prostrate serfs, never actually touched the ground. In 1869, the region’s first inter-urban rail line was inaugurated for a coal-burning steam locomotive connecting downtown to its port at San Pedro. By 1874, a small network of rails were laid downtown for the city’s first primitive form of local rail transit, the horsecar, a specially designed vehicle set upon the rails and lurched into motion by a team of horses or mules; the going on the Spring and Sixth Street Rail Road Company line was slow, but smoother than the horse-drawn omnibuses on pavement. [3]


In the same year in San Francisco, Andrew Hallidie had conducted the first successful experiments in drawing streetcars along a rail by means of an underground cable system. Within ten years, a dozen American cities had established extensive cablecar networks. The first in Los Angeles was opened in 1884, on a section of 2nd Street too steep for animal teams. In an iron conduit buried between the two rails, a very long cable was attached to enormous pulleys a considerable distance away, but still capable of pulling thousands of pounds up a hill.  Within a few years, cablecars were in wide used downtown even where the topography did not require it. The consequences for the architecture of the boulevards was negligible, for the source of mechanical traction was almost magically concealed, and the new cable vehicles were barely larger (or faster) than the old horse-drawn ones.


But more radical changes were imminent, as the use of cable traction gave way, both in Los Angeles and elsewhere , to a new source of motive power. Los Angeles had generated its first electricity in 1881, and by 1886 the new technology was harnessed to rail transport to produce the region’s first electric trolley line. It was a financial failure, and it would be another five years before someone would again try again, the precedent was established and would eventually dominate all other forms of transport. Throughout the 1890’s, a relentless transformation took place in which all the existing lines that had depended on horses, cable or steam power were converted to electric locomotion, while new lines were extended across the county…in 1895 the important link between downtown and Pasadena was electrified, as was – a year later – the even more critical line which ran northwest to Hollywood and then southwest all the way to Santa Monica.


The first architectural evidence of this revolution could be seen on the commercial streets downtown, where widely spaced colonnades of wooden utility poles were embedded in the sidewalk a foot or so from the curb. Initially supporting telegraph and telephone wires only, they were soon laced with electric wires in the service of the “great triad:” heat, light, and motion. The poles were often as tall as the office buildings; by virtue of this height and their free-standing position, they introduced a radical new scale and texture to the urban streetscape, competing for effect with Georgian cupolas and Italianate cornices. The presence of this powerful new utility was later made even more conspicuous by the veritable net of overhead wires which powered the new electric trolley cars – so called because of the small pulley mechanism which “trolled” the wires as the cars proceeded. The actual source of motive power, which had always been apparent with the horse and steam engine, and then concealed in sub-surface cables, now dramatically reappeared on the street in a kind of proto-functionalist essay on the exposition of working parts.


On the ever-lengthening boulevards outside downtown, a different but no less assertive cross-section was employed: centered between the familiar pair of trenches for the rails, a small, deep hole would be dug to receive the carefully skinned trunk of a local tree. Near its top, the pole would be fitted like a patriarchal cross with two transverse bars, a short wooden one carrying the different utility lines, and a long, elegant steel one, whose ends – directly centered over the two parallel tracks – held the electric line that powered the street cares. These would soon appear from both directions at twenty miles per hour, unprecedented for intra-urban transit. In many cases, this physical armature of pole, wire and rail constituted the architecture of the boulevards, sometimes bordered by trees transplanted to form a windbreak and perhaps to lend a note of dignity to an otherwise utilitarian corridor.  Like barnacles multiplying on a submerged chain, freestanding buildings would soon attach themselves to these corridors. Following the typical furrowed pattern of the street-car suburb, subsequent development occurred in successive parallel layers, usually no further back than a brisk five-minute walk. For about twenty years after the formation of the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railroad Company in 1894, the boulevards were the site of a stable choreography, with street-cars rumbling by from 10 to 20 miles per hour, bicycle prima donnas floating through at a more leisurely 5 to 10, while a chorus of pedestrians criss-crossed at varying paces with about as much predictability as clouds. Even the appearance of the automobile, of which there were 200 in all of Southern California in 1900, added nothing more than an occasional note of sputtering buffoonery to the urban ballet.


But by the end of the first World War, the pastoral dancing had come to resemble a battle scene, as the urban stage was overwhelmed by sheer numbers and heavy equipment.  The Automobile Club of Southern California, begun in 1900 as a genteel association for its 46 members, had by 1923 grown to a membership of 23,00; [4] as the number of automobile grew, so did the size and number of streetcars, trying to keep up with the city’s unprecedented population boom. The most intense confrontations were downtown, where all of the gains in speed and smoothness of the previous half century were rather ironically defeated by a new kind of streetscape, one that was literally clogged with idling machinery, fuming and lurching forward to grab a few feet of progress; through the chaos pedestrians had to pick their way with great care. This highly visible thwarting of the dream of unimpeded high-speed movement convinced everyone that the old integrated choreography was no longer possible, even independent real estate developers like Harry (“Culver City”) Culver were calling for concerted public action: “Unless citizens, taxpayers, and business interests heed the warning Los Angeles is doomed. Its growth will be stunted, progress retarded, traffic stopped and streets blocks”.5 His comments of 1924 are remarkably similar to those of Le Corbusier in the same year: “Such cities as do not adapt themselves  to the new conditions of modern life will stifle and perish…the conservative forces at work in great cities obstruct the development of transport, congest and devitalize activity, kill progress and discourage initiative.” [6] To many it seemed that the three-part phenomenon of population growth, automobiles and decentralization had precipitated the century’s first urban crisis.


The response of the city and county was to commission a study by a team of three national experts, including Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. Their report, the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan, concluded that the causes of the city’s traffic problems were the same as in cities across the United States, but for certain historic reasons, the effects were worse in Los Angeles than anywhere else. [7] The principal problem, they observed, was the lack of a well-organized network of thoroughfares. Those which existed (i.e. the boulevards) were too narrow, erratic, and discontinuous to satisfy the traffic flow requirements of a modern city. The report’s most emphatic recommendation was therefore an ambitious program of street widening, straightening, and extending that would forge the city’s haphazard collection of boulevards into a crisp arterial framework.


A key feature of this program was to be the segregation of traffic according to the type of vehicle. Downtown the segregation would occur, as in most older cities, in section: the electric streetcar lines converging on downtown would dive underground at its fringes, to be gathered together in the lower levels of the new Subway Terminal Building in the heart of the commercial district; cars and trucks would continue to use surface streets.


On the major thoroughfares outside of downtown, the segregation was to be horizontal, by street; imagine today private cars on, say, Wilshire Boulevard, electric streetcars on Santa Monica, buses on Olympic, trucks on Pico, and so on. The designation of “boulevard” itself was to be strictly reserved for those streets which carried private cars. They would generally be lined with private residence and extensively planted. Of the boulevards, Wilshire was to be widened to an extraordinary 200 feet, endowing it with the same unassailable dimensions and prestige as Paris’s Avenue Foch.


In essence, the Plan went far but not far enough, for its authors could not yet conceive of a city where the periphery would not only compete with the traditional downtown, but actually overwhelm it. The authors did mention, in a footnote, the possibility of more drastic solutions in the form of elevated roadways for private cars, but were not prepared to put this idea forward as a formal recommendation. By extension, they could barely conceive of the regional boulevards as anything more than thoroughfares leading into downtown, although they acknowledged the need for more lateral roadways to connect the various suburbs to each other. There was little discussion of the actual character – social, architectural, urbanistic – of the old boulevard once they were transformed into modern arterials; of the mass and surface of the architecture that would line them; of the impact of off-street parking on sidewalk activity. It was assumed that if travel into the center could be facilitated, and congestion within the center erased, then the whole civic apparatus of department stores, symphony halls, law courts, public parks, museums, and so on would take care of itself as it always had, along the edges of the traditional downtown street. The plan thus failed to establish a social or aesthetic vision of the grid of long-distance boulevards as the ultimate framework of the city’s civic, commercial, and neighborhood life.


Nevertheless, just prior to the voter referendum (which would overwhelmingly approve the Plan), the Los Angeles Times urged the support of “every voter who is proud of Los Angeles and wants to see it become the world’s most beautiful metropolis”, [8] This was at best a faint-hearted echo of the City Beautiful movement, which was by then little more than a distant memory from before the First World War. A more sanguine endorsement was offered by the president of the Traffic Commission, who observed that “millions must be spent to convert our streets into a balanced roadbed capable of handling the enormous and mounting traffic of this modern era.” [9] It was precisely this determination to create the “balanced roadbed” which overshadowed any concern with the “beautiful metropolis”.


The public’s enthusiasm for the 1924 Plan only deepened the general disappointment when, by the early 30’s, it became apparent that ever increasing decentralization and automobile use had already rendered the plan obsolete. This failure, along with the defeat of proposals in 1925 and 1935 for a comprehensive mass-transit system, simply removed any remaining resistance to the construction of the city’s first limited-access roadway. The Automobile Club issued the first published proposal for a freeway system in 1937; the Arroyo Seco Parkway was begun in 1938 and completed in 1940. Within five years, the entire electric streetcar system, in decline for two decades, would be virtually dismantled, to be substituted by a system of bus lines. Decentralizing industries also accelerated the shift from train to truck transport of goods. The new form of the city was crystallizing. The boulevards, envisioned in the 1924 plan as the main channels for all metropolitan movement, would soon be demoted to mere “surface streets” in the hierarchy of regional automotive transport. As increasing sums of money, attention and energy went into the creation of the world’s most extensive urban freeway system, the changing role of the boulevards in the public life of the city – beyond their arterial function – was barely discussed.


The unspoken effect of these developments was a gradual shift in the very terms of the whole urban metaphor, from the stable, almost classicizing idiom of train and streetcar engineering to the new and liquid language of the automobile. The power of the combustion engine and the agility of rubber tires meant that steep grades, quick stops and starts, short turning radiuses, and all of the other limitations on rail transport were almost magically swept away, leaving in front of the engineer’s dazzled eyes a vision not of great bridges but of great rivers, flowing swift and smooth and unchallenged across every conceivable terrain. Rail transport – with its monumental terminals, steel truss bridges and skylit sheds, passenger cars like small basilicas and compartments like Victorian salons – had always had a powerful affinity with architecture. But the new engineering allied with everything architecture resisted and was not: velocity, seamlessness, and a tendency towards environmental exclusion. Rail transport had reinforced, both in its designers and its passengers, an architectural consciousness; the automobile substituted an entirely new one which, in a few, short years managed to reverse the millennial primacy of architecture over movement. Firmness gave way to flow.


[1] Hill, La Reina, 70

[2] Clay McShane, “Transforming the Use of Urban Space: A Look at the Revolution in Street Pavements, 1880-1924”, Journal of Urban History, Vol. 5, No.3, May 1979

[3] For General histories of transport see: Boulton, W.H., The Pageant of Transport Through the Ages (London: Benjamin Blom 1969); Kinder, R.W., A Short History of Mechanical Traction and Travel, Vol. 1, Road (Kent: Oakwood 1947); or Miller, John Anderson, Fares, Please!: From Horse-Cars to Streamliners (New York: Appelton-Centruy 1941). For a good summary of the history of transport systems in Los Angeles see: Brodsly, David, L.A. Freeways: AN Appreciative Essay (Berkeley: University of California 1981).

[4] Hill, La Reina

[5] Quoted in Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkley: Uni. of California 1987) p.112. This is the most authorative work on the subject.

[6] Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (Cambridge: M.I.T).

[7] Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.