When I arrived in the City of Angels almost 30 years ago, I came locked, loaded and ready to shoot. Yes, I learned later to never use that terminology while in Los Angeles, particularly at the Huntington Library and Gardens. No, not a good idea.
I brought with me from Chicago my trusty Canon AE-1 Program and A-1, two wonderful cameras and they are built like tanks. Before leaving Chicago, I sold my Canon F1 (the big clunker) and almost sold my best street camera, the Canon Canonet, but the deal fell through. I’m actually glad the sale never happened because I honestly did not want to part with it and I still have that little camera today. It reminds me of my roots and speaking of roots, I started out in search of the roots of Los Angeles and that proved difficult.
I have been to many cities in my time but none has had a history as elusive as Los Angeles. I thought the city had been placed in a witness protection program because every surface I scratched lead to more questions than answers. Chinatown had some of its roots but not much, the same was true of Downtown Los Angeles, the near South Side, the Adams District, everything seemed to have been wiped out to make way for shiny new structures that said nothing of the past or its history.
I found a few buildings of Los Angeles’ past but, in terms of real history and culture, I found very little. I could not wait to see the Dunbar Hotel , formerly Hotel Somerville, on Central Avenue and Union Station downtown — those did not disappoint — but many of the landmarks I saw were bland, like furniture meant for viewing only. They were tourist traps filled with mass consumerism and little history or culture.
The one piece of Los Angeles history that caught my attention giving me some insight into the Los Angeles of old was Angels Flight, a funicular railway, which operated from 1901 until 1969, when its site at Hill and Olive was cleared for redevelopment. Oh yes, redevelopment. The two cars, Sinai and Olivet, were stored away for 27 years.
Angels Flight has had its problem. One fatality occurred in 1943 when a sailor attempted to walk up the tracks and was crushed beneath one of the cars. The second occurred in 2001, when one of the cars slid back down the track crashing into the other. It was closed after the 2001 accident and reopened in 2010 only to suffer another mishap, a derailment, in 2013. Angels Flight was closed again and on Thursday, August 31, 2017, Angels Flight will reopen to the public.
My love affair with Angels Flight happened after its move to its new location at California Plaza. I have enjoyed trips on both cars traveling up and down to another favorite place, Grand Central Market. I’ve photographed Sinai and Olivet many times over the years and hated to see them go. I knew it had many problems that were, quite frankly, ignored.
There is another part of this history, one I discovered upon meeting the daughter of Ben Abril, a local painter of old Los Angeles. He has numerous, beautiful paintings of Angels Flight and Bunker Hill before the bulldozers. Listening to her talk about her father and his paintings of Bunker Hill and Angels Flight endeared me to those two little cars. Through her talks of her father, I learned more about the history of Los Angeles, the purpose of those cars, what community surrounded the funicular, Angels Flight Pharmacy, and how her father “beat the bulldozers” to Bunker Hill to capture images of a place that would soon be forgotten. His paintings, along with photographs, and films I have found over the years show a community that once was and sadly, is no more.
I’m glad the funicular is back though it is a block or so from its original location and I’m glad it leads to Grand Central Market, The oldest farmers market in L.A. I hope it has a long run this time without mishap and I hope to take a few more rides on Sinai and Olivet before they or I leave this world.
Seventy Years of Los Angeles,
Then and Now | The New Yorker
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