Grand Illusions on Bunker Hill

Greg Goldin is a Los Angeles journalist.

The way Eli Broad describes it, Grand Avenue is poised to become Los Angeles’ Champs-Elysees. Over the next two months, the Grand Avenue Committee, a stealthy public-private partnership headed by power brokers Broad and Jim Thomas, will be evaluating proposals by two developers who made it to the final round of consideration in yet another effort to revitalize the portion of the troubled street that sits atop Bunker Hill.

The winner of any contract for the project must conceive and finance a way of bringing to life the bereft avenue that provides such a bleak contrast to Frank Gehry’s soaring, kite-like Walt Disney Concert Hall. It won’t be easy. Notwithstanding Disney Hall, Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Jose Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Bunker Hill is a series of bungles, squandered opportunities and hideous misapplications of stone, steel and concrete. The avenue is dead.

Yet once again, as happens every decade or so, civic leaders are professing high hopes for Bunker Hill. Since 1955, when Los Angeles City Council President John S. Gibson unveiled the first redevelopment design, a Pereira & Luckman conception of the “New Heart of Los Angeles,” one blueprint after another has been issued -- each accompanied by the optimistic if often hollow rhetoric of urban renewal. The latest proclamation, issued in September, comes from Broad: “New York has its Rockefeller Center, Times Square and Central Park,” he exulted. “Now, Los Angeles will have at its center a grand boulevard and urban park, providing millions of people each year the opportunity to walk, shop and play while enjoying downtown at its best.”


Sounds nice. But for the last 49 years the vision that’s been stated and restated for the neighborhood -- one of residences and hotels, of culture and happy pedestrians -- is exactly what existed there up until the moment in 1961 when the first group of urban renewers bulldozed the Hill’s aging Victorian mansions and masonry hotels, giving the landscape a flattop. Until then, 8,000 people lived on those steep, narrow streets -- not in blighted slums, as the boosters who orchestrated the clearance pronounced, but in a lively neighborhood.

Bunker Hill was a poor neighborhood. But there is a difference between impoverished and blighted, a distinction we should now grasp after a generation of ill-conceived urban renewal projects, from Robert Moses’ destruction of the Bronx to Richard Alioto’s decimation of the Embarcadero in San Francisco. No architect or urban planner today fails to pay lip service to this. Even so, with yet another set of plans about to be drawn up for Bunker Hill, no one is willing to invoke the place as it once was. Even as homage is paid to the idea of street life, its actual memory fades.

There are ghosts haunting Bunker Hill, and they rebuke our hubris. If you’d like to see them, try to catch the short film “Bunker Hill,” made by brilliant documentary filmmaker Kent Mackenzie (who, sadly, died in 1980 at age 50). In the 1956 film, the voices and images of those soon-to-be-dispossessed residents live on. An older man enters his small room, turns to a bookshelf, draws out a volume and sits down to read. Another walks up the incline of Grand Avenue. A group of men, fedoras pushed up, peer off a bridge overlooking a steam shovel scooping enormous loads of earth, making way for the Hollywood Freeway. A woman stands in front of a gingerbread Victorian holding a garden hose, watering her roses.

The people in Mackenzie’s film have a sense of belonging and a sense that where they live is worth belonging to. The voice of a doctor says, “I am known as a poor doctor to the sick poor and the poor sick. Most of my people are old, between 60 and 90 years of age. I call them ‘my people’ because they are my people, and they call themselves ‘my people.’ They only have their pensions, and they can’t afford to pay any more than they do pay. I’ve stood good for them many times when they haven’t got the means.” These people are at home; there is nothing transient about their lives.

Thinking about the razed Bunker Hill and keeping its memory alive is no mere act of nostalgia. The silent and aloof towers that dominate Grand Avenue today are sufficient proof that the attempted expurgation of the carpenter and shoemaker, the corner druggist and news vendors, the barkeeps and park-bench bums and the enclaves of black and Navajo Indian families whose homes disappeared beneath the four-level interchange, was a dangerous gambit. The abstracted life that fills those mighty tombstones, and departs from them hurriedly at dusk, is a dark doppelganger of the neighborly life that wanted nothing more than to stay put, to root itself deeper. Of course, that community never had the power to resist, which is exactly why it was ejected.

A close viewing of “Bunker Hill” reveals useful lives that continued to be useful even on the brink of being scattered. The men and women we see in Mackenzie’s brief footage exhibit two qualities rarely seen in that part of downtown today: fellowship and autonomy. The one informs the other, and neither can exist without streets and alleys and sidewalks and benches and bars and cafes that are settled. Which is to say, places that are continuously fertilized by the little exchanges and deeds of daily life -- so much present in “Bunker Hill” and so much lacking on Bunker Hill today. You cannot have comrades without places to convene, and without comrades in those places you cannot be self-legislating, only selfish. This is the true nature of public space: It reinforces civic life by reinforcing the individual.


Anything else, and you’re just a commuter. Which, sadly, is what we can expect for the future of Grand Avenue. For nowhere in the splendid renderings of glass towers, shiny hotel lobbies and evanescent streets that the Grand Avenue Committee has on its drawing board is there space for a “poor doctor to the sick poor,” or for the carpenter who, in the film, says “that the human element ought to be thought of first rather than monetary gain, and old people ought to be given preference over beautiful structures.”