Memory Lane

For a week this summer, a gigantic cold milling machine dispatched by the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services marched noisily down Outpost Drive, a twisting, carob-tree-shaded street in the Hollywood Hills. The behemoth, its business end equipped with tungsten-carbide teeth, was digging up concrete that had been poured when Calvin Coolidge was president and the studios made silent pictures. Day after day, the ashen dust of the 1920s hung in the air outside my house. A new asphalt surface was coming.

No one would dispute that Outpost Drive badly needed repaving. Its many buckled patches and corrugated seams attested to nearly a century’s worth of water main ruptures and gas line replacements. The street was hell on automobiles. On the curves, hubcaps flew off constantly, and heavy loads rattled loudly.

Yet for all of this, as the cold milling machine made its inexorable way down my block, I was filled with a sense of sadness. As much as Spanish Revival homes and lollipop-globed street lamps, concrete streets are a touchstone of old Los Angeles. Durable and white, with the contractors’ names stamped into the curbs, they evoke the city’s heyday of roadsters, gangsters (“The Big Sleep” may be noir, but its streets are not) and Midwestern immigrants. In the case of Outpost Drive, there was also something else.

The tracks began about a third of the way up Outpost, just below its intersection with Chelan Drive. Covering a little more than 30 feet, they recorded the dash of a bobcat or a very small mountain lion (I am not sure which, as the paws of both feature four clawless toes encircling a fist-shaped pad) across fresh, wet pavement. On the day this section of the Hollywood Hills surrendered to the internal-combustion engine, a sleek and deadly predator from a receding epoch had left its signature, as if to say: Let history remember that we were here first.

On any other street in the vast stretch of now densely populated canyons between Griffith Park and Malibu, the grinding up of some wildcat prints preserved in concrete would not be cause for much mourning. Outpost Drive, however, is different. The street takes its name from The Outpost, a retreat Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the early and powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times, owned near its southern terminus from the late 1800s until his death in 1917. (The property previously belonged to Don Tomas Urquidez. In 1853, he built an adobe on it.) This is where Otis and his cronies, many of them fellow veterans, went to get away from civilization and be at one with nature. Roughing it was the order of the day, and wildlife — whether hunted or merely observed — was a big part of the attraction.

I moved to Outpost in 2000, and in the subsequent decade, as I walked in the neighborhood both alone and with my wife and dogs, I always took note of the tracks in the street. They conjured up a time when mountain lions and bears roamed freely here and a creek ran down the canyon from what is now Mulholland Drive to Franklin Avenue. More than that, they inspired reveries. To imagine myself as a young man tromping these hills in the 1890s with a shotgun across my arm, a knife in my belt and beef jerky in my pack was a form of bliss. If I closed my eyes, an unspoiled Los Angeles seemed within reach.

By 1920, the real estate along Outpost Drive had been purchased by Charles E. Toberman, a prolific developer known as “Mr. Hollywood” and perhaps most famous for building the Egyptian, El Capitan and Chinese theaters. It was under his auspices that the Spanish Revival homes of Outpost Estates went up (along with a red neon “Outpost” sign, whose rusting remnants today lie at the edge of Runyon Canyon Park), and the concrete streets went in.

The repaving of Outpost Drive, then, is just progress. The wildcat tracks, in fact, only existed because of an earlier bit of progress. Yet on the day the cold milling machine destroyed them and then, the next week, when another machine poured the inevitable black asphalt, I couldn’t help but feel that something of great value had been lost. A thoroughfare that had once transported me into the past had become merely a route from point A to point B. As for the ride, it’s much smoother, and the cars go faster than ever.

Steve Oney is the author of “And the Dead Shall Rise.”