CicLAvia Reaches Out to the City Present, Past and Future

Ciclavia route map for 2012

We previously posted about changes to this Fall’s CicLAvia route, including a new extension into Chinatown and a long spur into South Los Angeles and Exposition Park. Gone is the Eastside’s touchstone, Hollenbeck park, and jettisoned too is ‘Hel-Mel.’ But the new western hub at MacArthur Park does opens it more to Westside & Mid City riders. What do these changes mean for our ride in October, and what can they tell us about the city past, present, and future?

What is CicLAvia Again?

For the uninitiated, CicLAvia is an occasional closure of streets in and around Downtown Los Angeles intended to liberate from vehicular traffic that most precious but least-shared of urban resources, our city streets. Cleared of traffic if only for a Sunday, the invite – practically beg – Angelenos of every persuasion to join this urban parade. With no fixed form, no clear direction, and only a distant relationship to the (car-centered) order that prevails between the curbs every day, it is a march of liberation to be sure.

CicLAvia is an experience we expect only when we travel elsewhere. To Paris, say, where that City of Lights closes the Seine parkway to motor traffic (and other streets too) on Sundays for Paris Respire (‘Paris Breathe’). Or to Mexico City, where our Los Federales compatriots march the blacktop Ciclovía style, just as it emerged from Bogota, Columbia. Back in the 1970s, that latter city birthed the antecedent to today’s Los Angeles-branded CicLAvia.

A worldwide movement to reclaim the streets has taken hold seemingly everywhere these days (including many American cities). In fact, Los Angeles is actually late to the party! Organizers first cranked up CicLAvia only in 2010!

Now after four events, the current ride organizers are again bringing Angelenos to Downtown from surrounding points by every means of human-powered conveyance possible, including notably rail transit. Riding pimped fixies and hacked-together Frankenstein rides, cyclists of all ages take over the streets in a display of sheer imagination. Like when our bike-maker culture percolates up into view in the form of a riders atop 8-foot tall bikes cobbled from repurposed road frames. It makes for an unforgettable sight if only because it deftly, subversively mocks the everyday ‘safety bicycle’ while tipping the hat to the Shriner mini-cars that mock auto-centric traditional parades.

The New Route

The fundamental remains unchanged: Downtown LA is the nexus from which the route radiates out to neighborhoods in center city’s orbit. We would argue that the event itself suggests a step back in time, allowing participants a window into the material past of some of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In this way, CicLAvia harks back to the city that was by bringing riders though some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. There European-style wealth & status are still very much on display.

Yet CicLAvia also suggests the city that could be if only we focus on the planning touchstones. Our parks, transportation network & cultural institutions have always been a part of the CicLAvia experience, of course, but this time around they’re integrated more successfully into the route…much as a succession of visionary planners (and not-so-visionary city planning authorities) used those building blocks to re-fashion a city that never did seem to pan out. (See the Olmsted Brothers & Harland Bartholomew Associates report, Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region, prepared in 1930 for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. It simply sat on a shelf. Here’s the report – big PDF.)

Ciclavia Grand Park hub map 2012-10-7The new route suggests that organizers have commensurate ambitions for CicLAvia too. The key changes:

  • First up is city parks: they’re more prominent destinations than ever before for CicLAvia. New hubs at MacArthur and Exposition parks put them on the map, so to speak. Even the city’s newest Grand Park (left) gets the nod via a new Spring Street spur into Chinatown. Parks: check!Ciclavia Eastside hubs map 2012-10-7
  • Next, these parks now also play a significant role as rail-accessible hubs in the west, south & east (at right) promise to bring more riders to CicLAvia by train. Bus travel poses a limitation you see: bus bike racks carry only two bikes and they quickly fill up. This Fall, organizers really want to encourage mass transit. Rail transportation: check!
  • And last, the new route now reaches into South Los Angeles with a spur to key cultural institutions in Exposition Park. Institutions: check!

But there are concessions too. The east and west CicLAvia spurs are somewhat attenuated this time around, with Hollenbeck getting the boot and ‘Hel-Mel’ in East Hollywood jettisoned. (Read more about the new route in LA Streetsblog.)

Goodbye Hel-Mel!

Bike kitchen's new home
The Bicycle Kitchen’s new digs in Sunset Junction.

Losing the hub at Heliotrope & Melrose is a spiritual loss for CicLAvia. ‘Hel-Mel,’ as it is known, is significant for having incubated a ‘maker’ bike subculture here in Los Angeles. It birthed the co-op Bicycle Kitchen (the first of five citywide bike co-ops now). It’s a neighborhood survivor. And nothing says ‘bootstrapped’ survival like the Bicycle Kitchen, where a cooperative effort lets riders donate time, tap the expertise, and wrench their ride community style.

Since CicLAvia formed, though, the shop moved over to swanky Sunset Junction. So perhaps it is appropriate that CicLAvia moves on too. (“Fare thee well to all our old neighbors,” said the website.) But Hel-Mel will always be a spiritual birthplace of CicLAvia.

Hel-Mel detail via LARY map from 1933
Hel-Mel serviced by a Los Angeles Railway streetcar from the south and a (post-merger) Pacific Electric railway line on Santa Monica. (1933 map.) Those were the days.

Once a thriving intersection anchored by (believe it!) UCLA’s first campus, change came abruptly to the Hel-Mel area when the nascent college moved west. Succeeding that institution was a junior college (noted on the map at left). Both fit into the surrounding community – a working-class redoubt accessed by two streetcar lines. The Pacific Electric Western Division’s Santa Monica Boulevard line connected Downtown through Beverly Hills to Santa Monica; and the Los Angeles Railway ran a line up Heliotrope to turn left on Melrose. These lines took commuters Downtown and brought shoppers back to the local retailers.

The area’s real decline began when it lost that connectivity. The Hollywood Freeway in 1940 put a gash through the community and isolated Hel-Mel from neighboring areas.  Four north-south streets were cut off, all of them near the Hel-Mel intersection. Those (like Melrose) that did remain though-routes were lent a certain ‘urban charm’ by the new overpasses. And not long after the freeway came through, the streetcar service was terminated. So it’s been a tough slog.

Today the Hel-Mel neighborhood is utterly dominated by the sprawling Los Angeles City College that brings negatively impacts without returning much of any significant benefit. Now it’s even off the CicLAvia map!