Better Bike joined LACBC board member Greg Laemmle and outreach coordinator Carol Feucht this past Sunday for a ride from Union Station up through Cypress Park, Glassell Park, and on to Glendale to Griffith Park’s Travel Town. Anticipating next month’s Railroad Days celebration, we had a look at the old rolling stock. This latest Sunday Funday rides series (free to LACBC members) was yet another event that lived up to our high expectations of the coalition!
More than just a ride around town, this was a journey through the 20th century history of railroading and community growth.
We embarked from Union Station on Alameda. ‘Union’ refers to the new station’s consolidation of depots that individually served separate railroads. When it opened in 1939 (once the city’s original Chinatown was eradicated) it served three major railroads: Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and the Santa Fe. From Union Station, passenger and freight branched out to serve the region. And it continues to serve that purpose today: Union Station still moves passengers via Amtrak and Metro’s ever-extending rail system.
Across the Los Angeles River we stopped to get a closer look at the Union Pacific line before turning northward toward Glendale to follow the Southern Pacific mainline. Making our way, the peloton (as it were) snaked through Lincoln Heights (one of the city’s earliest suburbs) and into Cypress Park. In those early suburbs we saw the ‘old’ Los Angeles of modest shacks and courtyard apartments that were home to railroad workers and the laborers who toiled in the central city’s many industries. The eclectic variety of modest housing recalled the bygone days when most commerce moved by rail. Back then, human sweat powered a prodigious export machine second to none on the west coast.
From autos to steaks, it was made in Southern California and sent ’round the world. Today, however, technology and imports have displaced many of those jobs, and residents in this part of town today are more likely to be industrious than industrial. They open small business, work in the ‘shadow’ (i.e., informal) economy, or produce by-the-piece rather than than punch a big-company timeclock.
With wealth drained from the community, though, buying power has declined; former commercial corridors like this one on Vergudo (left) were once alive with economic activity have become moribund. Closed shops signify a vicious circle where diminished wealth undermines local jobs and industries that put dollars back into the local neighborhood.
For much of this part of our route, the reminders of such economic stagnation abound. Witness the clapboard bungalows in severe disrepair. On the one hand, they recall a more prosperous past; but their condition, clearly blighted, is overlooked entirely by planners and policymakers because there’s no ready higher-and-better use. Capital is not finding these blocks of Glassell Park. Hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies finds its way into AEG pockets for LA Live, but not for these places where the local economy spins unsteadily like an unbalanced top, ready to wobble to a stop.
But for the hard-working and entrepreneurial-minded sort, these communities still hold untapped purchasing power. Now, it might require more creative energy to tap than most retail chains are able to summon, but that opens opportunity to folks that work with what they have. They pool capital. They brace against the social miasma that comes with the cheap rent. They exploit the lack of competition to start local service businesses like hair salons or local markets. At least until the market is established, wealth is generated, and risk reduced. Then we see a different kind of commercial investor emerge.
Continuing our ride north toward Glendale, the character of the community begins to change in just that fashion: informal economies become formalized; intersections studded with name brand franchises fairly buzz with traffic. And between these nodes, clapboard shacks yield to bungalows and then petit bourgeois castles as we climb gently toward the Vergudo hills. The fresher air and the light-at-elevation begin to change too. Griffith Park here we come!