Coming up in the next two weeks or so are two great bike events: Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s River Ride (June 9th) and CicLAvia‘s foray into the Westside (June 23rd). Each provides the causal rider and the committed wheelman an opportunity to view the city in cross section. Where River Ride is a roll though blue-collar communities and rail yards of the region’s industrial present, CicLAvia Wilshire ride is a trip though the mid-century past. From the blacktop at a slow pace we can find much to appreciate about this city, from hard-edge industry to Deco-era eclecticism.
What’s summoned by the phrase, ‘Los Angeles River’? Perhaps an iconic corridor that cuts a concrete swath from the western San Fernando Valley to the harbor. Or maybe it’s the inscrutable patchwork of blue-collar communities, anonymous factories, and ever-present rail yards. It is not much to look at if you’re seeking a postcard view, granted, but look a bit more closely as you roll along and the rich history of Los Angeles basin habitation and production begins to reveal itself.
The Los Angeles River is nothing if not a geographic, historical, and thematic bridge from the city’s long-ago past to its present-day status as a global logistical kingpin wedged profitably between the Asian continent and Western markets. It was once a lifeline for agriculture production, for example. Pre-European peoples harvested food from its banks. Later, long before Los Angeles incorporated in 1849 Europeans had tapped the river to supply an ingenious irrigation system (zanja) to better grow crops in our semi-arid climate. At the turn of the nineteenth century, in fact, the river nourished a viticulture industry northeast of Downtown. You see, ours always was a commercial settlement rather than base camp for an evangelizing mission.
The LACBC River Ride traces those early days by following the river south from Griffith Park’s Autry Center. Riders will depart in stages early Sunday for a first-hand look at how the changing utility of the river has shaped Los Angeles through the years. So stay alert as you pass through the hardscrabble communities of Vernon, South Gate, Lynwood. All thrived back when the river served as a vena cava that carried waste from the factories. (That included blood from hog processors and toxic sludge from all variety of heavy industry.)
Take a look around as you hop back and forth over today’s revitalized river. Many of the big factories long ago departed, but the naked infrastructure of production remains: the roads, railroads, power lines and warehouses that put this region on the map a century ago and are still vital to a successive crop of industrial producers. Nowhere will the day rider get a better view where the past and future (not to mention incompatible uses) collide than along the Los Angeles River.
Continue on to the Harbor, where the river’s mouth marks the spot where where the nation’s greatest agglomeration of goods movement facilities is clustered by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It’s a landscape of global trade.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the riparian corridor always looked this way. Not so! Untamed and ever-meandering, the Los Angeles river once mapped an ever-changing course from Owensmouth (in the Valley) to the bay near the Ballona Creek (adjacent to today’s Marina Del Rey). With the seasonal rains came floods, and one epic deluge forced a realignment of the river. After that it flowed south toward the harbor.
And that’s not the only change: once the river was wide and not very deep. It boasted sandy banks. But because the periodic flooding wreaked havoc on surrounding communities, engineers from DC finally put the boot to nature’s caprice, and after the 1930s it was channelized. And subsequently classified by the Army Corps as ‘non-navigable.’ But that is changing.
Due to the hard work of Friends of the Los Angeles River (and individual agitators for river restoration) it has been somewhat restored to a shade of its former glory and recently reclassified as ‘navigable.’ Expeditions are already plying it with canoes. Just look at the way nature has reclaimed the channel!
Consider River Ride your opportunity to take a different kind of expedition: on a lovely bike path instead of braving the riparian currents. LACBC’s River Ride is an urban, historic, and thematic trip back through time and place that affords the rider an unparalleled close-up view of the river’s beauty (concrete channel and all).
River Ride embarks from the Autry Center at Griffith Park for eight rides, including a 100-mile century, a 70-miler, and a 50-miler half-century, as well as a 15-mile family ride. Again this year, South Bay riders can begin at the Aquarium in Long Beach for a 36-milereverse ride as well as a local Long Beach loop. Don’t miss it. Visit the registration page for more details.
What can be said about the now-institutionalized CicLavia that hasn’t already been said? This closed-street festival returns on June 23rd with a saunter down Wilshire Boulevard from Downtown to Fairfax. Coursing through what used to be the west side of town (now the MacArthur Park area) and then on through Koreatown and finally into Mid City, this new Wilshire route sections the city’s history in a very different way. (Download the map.)
Unlike the Los Angeles River Ride, CicLAvia on Wilshire doesn’t so much cut across the grain of urban history but instead follows it like a timeline. As Wilshire stretches west, we see reflected in the streetscape the changing uses of the land as well as the evolving character of the architecture.
For as real estate investment plowed westward, it turned greenfield into shops, offices, and homes through the magic of land subdivision. And it fixed the histories of the city at particular moments in time along that boulevard. Were it theater, Wilshire block faces would provide the scenery that illustrates the story while crossing boulevards mark the plot turns.
This story is about dynamic urban spatial growth the likes of which no eastern city knew. In a few years the city grew five fold, pushing far beyond its earlier boundaries. The resulting changes in streetscape character can still be glimpsed beneath latter-day appendages and accouterments. Witness the historic buildings that lurk behind the masquerade of illegal signage that is the MacArthur section. And the grand turn-of-the century churches that punctuate oversized Koreatown banalities. These places illustrate a city growing fast to accommodate new arrivals.
Moving west past Western, for example, the character of the streetscape changes markedly. Western was not only once a main drag from Hollywood to Harbor (30 miles south!) but was also the city’s western boundary. But it functions more as a soft boundary today than a jurisdictional one. It is an historic, stylistic, and economic dividing line between changing urban fortunes and mid-century affluence beyond. Socially and physically Wilshire tracks the change. Indeed one doesn’t have to squint in order to see the gentle curves and luxurious materials that mark the Deco era as it rolled through the Mid City section at the height of the 1920s boom.
Miracle Mile was developed prior to WWII for residential and retail uses by speculator A.W. Ross. Today from LaBrea to Fairfax it is a mid-century ‘core sample’ that reveals how investment flowed from Downtown into new investments at the (then) urban edge. Where today’s eye may see an undifferentiated or chaotic urbanity (right) underneath the facades and behind the boulevard lurks the markers of an evolving city.
For example, not long ago the LACMA site was virgin land scarred only by oil rigs (and marred by the occasional tar patch). Across the street stood a two-sided advertising sign that hawked Ross’s subdivisions. And that sign stood until well after the museum was completed – a landmark of sorts on the corridor atop the bare ground. (You can almost imagine how it looked to mid-century eyes because today that southern side of the street remains relatively under-developed still.)
In the intervening decades, though, LACMA has undergone some change. The distinguished original structures (right) have been subordinated or demolished over the years to build a series of unfortunate additions.
And the sprawling plaza (left) is long gone (today the museum turns its back on the sidewalk). Peer behind the new crap and you can still make out the bones of the old institution. Word to the wise: get a good look at the old stuff now because the county has proposed demolishing what little remains of the original structure.
Coming to the end of the CicLAvia route at the Fairfax corner, one finds the historic former May Company department store (below). This was once the May Co. retailing empire’s western (then-suburban) outpost. But in recent years it has struggled to find a suitable re-use – a white elephant from a time when Miracle Mile was a retail destination. How urban fortunes change!
And speaking of which, across Fairfax sits Johnnie’s coffee shop as a fanciful reminder of the Miracle Mile’s high-flying past. Today it is bereft of customers, though, because it no longer serves food. It is merely a stand-in for a restaurant in film and TV.
Yet landmarks like Johnnie’s are firmly fixed in the collective imagination as symbols of a glorious auto-era, back when mobility was free-and-easy. When a driveway awaited your car at home in the suburbs. When land was cheap (and so was gas) and new vistas awaited. Not so much anymore; housing and transportation eats up a larger share of the household budget than it used to and travel through our congested city isn’t quite what it used to be.
Nobody’s talking about Miracle Mile as a shoppers’ paradise any more. We’re not so eager to navigate the potholed corridor by car. That’s the Miracle Mile of yesterday. So what will be of Miracle Mile tomorrow?
Perhaps now that officials have cut the ribbon on bus-only lanes on Wilshire, maybe the corridor will find rebirth as the successful transit corridor around which high-density development is well–clustered. At least that’s the promise.
CicLAvia offers an opportunity to contemplate the past while ruminating on that uncertain entry into our post-auto future. In that sense maybe the closed Johnnies is a reflection of our dashed auto-era dreams?
With June 23rd’s CicLAvia route ending at Fairfax, riders may be tempted to simply turn around and head east. That would be a shame. A few blocks to the west, at San Vicente and Wilshire, an earlier transportation era bumped up against the previous one only fifty years ago. Back then one could stand on that corner and experience the waning days of the Pacific Electric streetcar as it passed by. It was heading northwest to Beverly Hills (along today’s Burton Way). At that moment, too, the motorcar was enjoying its peak of popularity. A congested Wilshire Boulevard suggested the future of motoring in the City of Angels was bright. Alas, it couldn’t last.
CicLAvia riders can do themselves a favor on Sunday and continue even farther west on Wilshire to visit Beverly Hills. We have a small but valiant farmers market near City Hall. We have a lovely historic park along Santa Monica Boulevard. And Greystone Mansion rewards a stiff uphill climb with spectacular views. With the road-raging motorists off the road (at least for the day) you’ll find it’s really a nice place to visit. Even if you can’t find a bicycle rack to hitch to!