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A Tough Cell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Lease: Old jail in Lincoln Heights that housed some of Los Angeles’ most unscrupulous characters. Sinister dark hallways, original iron bars. Said to be haunted. Scene of at least one gruesome death in an elevator shaft.

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At first glance, this rundown city jail on the banks of the Los Angeles River may not seem like prime real estate. But city officials think they just might be able to spruce up the place for a willing tenant.

After sitting nearly abandoned for decades, the neglected building--one of the first jails in Los Angeles--is being studied as a candidate for renovation. Fixing the place up would cost about $16 million, but city officials say the investment is worth it to bring the old building back into service.

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“It’s a little creepy but it’s good waterfront property,” said Dan Rosenfeld, manager of the Department of General Services.

The concrete, Art Deco-style facility was built in 1931, replacing another jail on the site constructed a decade earlier. Now surrounded by a confluence of freeways and railroad tracks, the aging lockup has seen better days.

A boxing club, arts foundation and theater group that rent space have transformed some of the old cells. But on the three abandoned floors, often used by film crews, industrial green paint is peeling from the ceiling in long, feathery strips. Encrusted pigeon droppings coat the stairwells. Rats and cockroaches scuttle around the dark edges of the halls. The broken windowpanes are coated with grime, and birds flutter in and out of the empty cells.

“It’s a little scary,” said John Vasquez, the city employee who coordinates film shoots at the jail, as he made his way down a dim corridor on a recent morning. “I don’t like coming here by myself.”

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A walk down the long hallways at the jail is a walk back into its heyday of the 1930s and 1940s, when just about anyone arrested in Los Angeles stayed behind these bars.

“I have this vision of it from Raymond Chandler’s ‘L.A. noir’ period,” said Rosenfeld. “All the great stories of crime and punishment in those times were tied up with this building. This was the jail through some wild times.”

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The facility was well known to thousands of men and women who spent the night at “The Heights” after being picked up for public intoxication or gambling. At its peak, the jail was crammed with almost 3,000 inmates at a time, spawning the term “Gray Bar Motel,” now used as a generic reference to jail.

The five-story jail housed prisoners until the late 1950s, when overcrowding forced the county to take over most of the city jail system. The building was put into use again during the 1965 Watts riots before being closed later that year.

An architectural firm that studied the building this summer concluded that its foundation and structure are still strong. The city has considered several options for the jail, including transforming it into artist loft space, low-income housing or public storage.

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But architects said the most feasible idea is returning the building to the Police Department. The jail could be effectively turned into office space, a crime lab and evidence storage for the police and possibly the Fire Department, said Herb Nadel, the architect working on the study.

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While the cost of renovation is significant, it is less than half that of finding other property and building a similar facility, Nadel said.

The facility has weathered years of neglect, as well as a 1993 effort to tear it down to make room for a light-rail line between downtown, Glendale and Burbank. The jail received official historic-cultural monument status that year, but has languished, mostly forgotten.

“The city just didn’t deal with it and left it there,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s a case of serious embarrassment that the building was allowed to deteriorate.”

The musty building isn’t entirely deserted. An arts group and theater organization rent the refurbished ground floor, while a city-run boxing club and gym occupy the renovated fifth floor. These nonprofit groups, which pay $1 a year in rent, would be allowed to remain in the building if it is renovated.

Recent years at the jail have been quiet, except for a strange death there in 1994.

Late one November evening, the body of Johnnie Flores, founder of the boxing club, was found sprawled at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Investigators ruled his death accidental, concluding that the elevator doors opened prematurely. In the darkness, they said, Flores did not notice he was stepping into the empty shaft.

Flores’ death added to the aura of mystery surrounding the jailhouse, which has made it popular among artists and entertainers. Film crews regularly rent the jail for $300 a day, delighting in the prospect of using the dingy cells left intact on the second floor. In the last year alone, the lockup has been used in dozens of productions, including “Con Air,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Chicago Hope” and a Hootie & the Blowfish music video.

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Later this month, Los Angeles’ Collage Dance Theatre will perform an interactive multimedia show through the old cells as part of its “Urban Extinction” series.

Despite its history, the current tenants profess a certain fondness for the building, which they have creatively modified to meet their needs.

The Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, founded by Carmen Zapata, has converted an old courtroom into a 99-seat theater. The old lineup area is now the lighting control room, and the inmate holding tank functions as a dressing room.

On the other side of the building, the Aztlan Cultural Arts Foundation occupies large rooms decorated with bright murals.

Besides the young boxers duking it out in the Los Angeles Youth Athletic Club, most of the building is almost always empty, the former cells crowded with boxes stored there by various city agencies.

Empty, that is, except for the ghost.

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Many people have reported tales of strange sounds in the halls when darkness fills the prison. Iron gates clang shut on their own. Punching bags swing in the still air. The elevator stops suddenly, of its own accord.

Legend has it that the sounds come from a spirit named “Blue Boy,” the ghost of someone who reportedly died in the prison infirmary.

Patrick Strong, director of the athletic club, said he has felt the ghost’s presence when he stays late working on paperwork.

“I’ve actually been brushed a couple times by that ghost, where it felt exactly like someone brushing you in the elevator,” Strong said. “There is something that happens late at night--the energy certainly changes.”

Not that the mysterious spirits bother him.

“For a dingy old foreboding place,” he said, “the actual feeling here is actually quite nice.”


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