I recently attended a meeting where city representatives updated a local business group about planning efforts for Downtown L.A. development. One of the topics of discussion was the sale of a parcel of land which includes the historic Angels Flight funicular, a grassy hillside known as Angels Knoll Park, and Angels Knoll Plaza located directly below the park.
During the meeting, a city staffer made a passing remark about citizens’ inquiries regarding the fate of a particular park bench made famous by the 2009 romantic film, “(500) Days of Summer”. Most of us in the room knew the reference.
Angels Knoll Park is now closed to the public. If you ever visited the spot, you know that the grassy hillside is far from idyllic, with much of the land taken over by weeds and dry, overgrown grass. A decision to use goats for clearing the vegetation during summer months drew lots of attention from the media and was popular with families. Otherwise, there is not much to the spot except for the city view—which you would have shared with the homeless people encamped there.
Yet, the snippet from “(500) Days of Summer” somehow connected with many people (with hundreds of Instagrams from the very same bench reflecting this connection). The lingering sentiment is not completely dismissed by city leaders and planners. That particular bench seems to have become a touchstone of the city’s life.
A curiosity with this bench led me to discovering more about the story of Bunker Hill.
Angels Flight is a historical and cultural landmark (as noted in Ed Penney’s 1965 documentary about the Angels Flight Railway) which dates back to 1901, a time when the two-car funicular carried residents of Bunker Hill to jobs and shops down the hill. Although the railway’s original location was two blocks from the current one, the original cars and station elements are used today.
Bunker Hill represented a physical and social divide of the city. Upper class families lived exclusively in Bunker Hill’s two-story Victorian homes which provided views of the L.A. basin, while the working class lived in the lower districts. As the wealthy moved out of Bunker Hill to L.A.’s more suburban enclaves, Bunker Hill’s houses were subdivided into rental units and the area transformed into a crowded, urbanized working class community.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the city implemented a massive redevelopment of the area which was controversial in its demolition of property through eminent domain and the displacement of 22,000 working class families. Amazingly, Angels Flight continued to operate as the neighborhood around it was demolished. It was then dismantled in 1969 and, nearly three decades later, refurbished and reopened at its current location as part of the larger parcel that includes the hillside park and, much later, the plaza (designed by AHBE). Given the relatively recent occurrence of these events, many Angelenos know this story of Bunker Hill quite well.
Today, residents and workers, including myself, remember taking Angels Flight’s short but steep trip (about 300 feet long with a 33-degree slope) between Hill Street and California Plaza. The ride was fun, the view awesome, and the adjacent stair climb could be avoided.
Angels Flight’s modern day history is blemished by misfortune: recurring safety issues resulted in injuries and a death of a passenger in 2001, and the state dissolved the agency which oversaw the property. In 2013, another safety mishap took Angels Flight out of operation. Last year, Angels Knoll Park and Plaza were closed to the public in response to complaints about homeless occupation, a decision which has raised many questions.
As urban designers, we think a lot about revealing the “story of place” so that the people who use the spaces we create feel deeply connected to them. While sitting on the bench with L.A. as a backdrop, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s young character in the film talks about his dream of contributing to the city’s architecture. Angelenos have certainly seen times of inspiration and disappointments, and memories taken away, and then resurrected. We can return to this spot and have a similar conversation about our own dreams about the city.
Once this parcel of land is sold and the fate of the park, plaza, and railway is finally made public, is it possible that one park bench will get in the way of the wrecking balls? Let’s hope those who eventually make the decision will remember this sentiment uttered by aspiring architect and greeting card author, Tom Hansen (aka Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the very same bench:
“There’s a lot of beautiful stuff here, too, though. I don’t know. I just wish people would notice it more.”