Abandoned three years ago, Angels Flight now target of graffiti vandals

After a decade working on Bunker Hill, Virginia Franken has grown accustomed to taking the stairs. 

Angels Flight, the city’s historic two-car funicular, has sat idle between Hill and Olive Streets since it derailed in 2013. So to procure an iced almond-macadamia milk latte during lunch, she must scurry past an assemblage of dirty socks, plastic gloves and cigarette butts on the steep staircase that runs parallel to the rail.  

None of the debris gives her much pause anymore. And the two motionless cars stuck midway up tiny tracks now represent the status quo.

But on Friday’s walk back to the office, Franken peered up at the cars, stopped midstride on the staircase and recoiled.

“Look at that,” Franken, 39, said. “This amazing thing ... is covered in graffiti.”  

A cavalcade of problems -- including the death of a tourist -- have plagued Angels Flight for more than a century, forcing the tiny downtown railway to perennially close and then reopen -- only to close again.

But operators, officials and locals alike say they were aghast to discover that the Olivet car had been defaced earlier this week. On Friday, the car’s windows were covered in white scrawl, its pumpkin facade covered by a cartoonish animal, resembling something between a whale and a cat.   

“The foundation and the community are very disappointed that someone would choose to denigrate a city landmark,” said Hal Bastian, president of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation.

Bastian said he became aware of the graffiti Thursday, and was working with the mayor’s office and other partners to abate it. He would not provide a timeline for when the graffiti would be removed.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office directed the Board of Public Works to remove it, spokeswoman Connie Llanos said. However, workers will have to wait until Monday to access the tools they need to clean it safely, she added. 

Because Angels Flight has been designated a historical cultural monument, the cleaning process could become complicated, said Jimmy Tokeshi, a spokesman for the city’s department of public works. When dealing with such monuments, crews must concern themselves with color schemes and be careful not to do harm, he said. 

The cars and the rest of the facility are technically “the responsibility of the foundation,” Tokeshi said. Various city agencies will work with the foundation, he added, but “there’s a process.”

In Angels Flight’s absence, the 153 steps that run parallel to the railway serve as a critical pedestrian walkway connecting urban apartment dwellers and well-appointed accountants to Grand Central Market and other lunchtime escapes. 

On Friday afternoon, Hill Street also bustled with out-of-towners. One pair of Polish tourists stopped to pose in front of the orange netting that snaked around the twin pillars at the railway’s base.

Locals, meanwhile, complained about the smell of urine that wafted over the staircase and speculated that the rail’s years-long closure made it a more alluring target for crime. Its pumpkin facade had faded to peach, and its way-finding sign has been fenced in by chain links.

Enrique Martinez, 45, who works for a privately owned graffiti-removal company, said he spotted the defaced train car while driving downtown. As an Angeleno, he thought  he had no choice but to climb the stairs, take a picture and send it to the city.

“Hundreds of people cross this walkway every day and they see this,” Martinez said. “It’s terrible.”  

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByMattStevens

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