Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

On Sunday, my husband Adrian and I enjoyed a ride on the 100 year old funicular in Downtown Los Angeles. Like trains, elevators, escalators, and monorails, Angel’s Flight is a different form of transportation – one unique to Los Angeles. The cable rail car travels precariously up a steep incline onto fashionably urban Bunker Hill. But for four years the rail car has been closed. Recently, Angel’s Flight was reopened again to carry happy tourists upward and downward this small slice of Downtown Los Angeles (like the group of fun-loving Italians that we met enjoying Los Angeles on an early Sunday evening, captured below).

All photos above and below except when noted: Katharine Rudnyk

Sure, you can get some exercise and take the stairs, or walk up one of the many steep streets to the top of the hill. But why would you suffer the slog when you can quickly travel from the multi-cultural food mecca of Grand Central Market up to the California Plaza next to the Omni Hotel via funicular? The experience is like riding a self-driving Tesla, sans driver. We watched the two rail cars pass each other with ease and without any issues. Just imagine experiencing that for the first time in 100 years ago!

Riding Angel’s Flight reminds me of the cable cars I once boarded to soar over and across Barcelona – an experience better and more thrilling than flying over the landscape using Google Earth. The aerial journey over the Spanish mountains, the city, then finally onto the beach is truly unforgettable. Admittedly, Angel’s Flight is a slower moving rail car than an aerial tram suspended from cables. The distance is only a few city blocks, but it is just as rewarding as flying overhead across Barcelona in my opinion! It’s amazing just how many unique spaces you’ll pass while riding Angel’s Flight. Both rides across Barcelona and Los Angeles can be frightening, especially when the car stops mid-flight; all you can think to yourself is, “I hope the brakes work!”. You can find yourself eyeing escape routes in silent concern.

Entering Angel’s Flight can feel like entering a dollhouse. Everything seems tiny, yet also spacious! As the rail car begins to move along the Angel’s Flight’s path, riders get a glimpse of the bones of what was once a beautiful urban park shuttered since 2012. The closed public space gives tourists and residents alike a brief moment of “what if” as they’re whisked away across the sky. I kept imagining how relaxing it could be enjoying a meal from the crowded Grand Central Market underneath the shade of a Platanus racemosa (Western Sycamore). Looking at the park today, you would never know how beautiful and representative of Los Angeles it really once was.

One day while walking by the park after a meeting with Evan Mather, ASLA – one of our firm’s principals – I inquired about the original designer of the shuttered space. Even closed, the site still retains a spirit of possibilities, a special corner of Downtown awaiting revival.

Evan informed me it was in fact AHBE Landscape Architect’s own Principal Calvin Abe, FASLA, who designed the project. Please read more about it here.

As Angel’s Flight riders move further up on the rail line, they’ll pass an area that has been kept tidy by goats. Currently barren, the open space will inevitably become another victim of redevelopment. On the other side, a secret urban garden patio is visible, a stark juxtaposition of once public versus private outdoor spaces.

Once at the top, riders are required to pay 50 cents with a Metro pass, gaining access to hike around the California Plaza. A very clean amphitheater surrounded by skyscrapers, manicured plants, and a large food court welcome visitors, alongside the occasional bored hotel guest from the Omni, a jovial security guard, and few romantic couples strolling and enjoying the view. So many cool plants are found here – from ornamental grasses and a majestic Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle) on the plaza’s deck, to a huge houseplant-like Ficus lyrata (Fiddle-leaf Fig). The fiddle-leaf fig has gone fun-lovingly rogue in the shady corridors, attributed to the location and being very well-cared for by horticulture professionals.

After hiking though the site, visitors are invited back to pile back into the rail car to gracefully descend back down the hillside. On the right side, before approaching the platform, you can see the back of an apartment building filled with a community garden where a perimeter of the property hosts a healthy growth of nasturium (Tropaeolum).

As the funicular slows, you realize the journey is coming to end. The serenity offered above is replaced by a more dangerous streetscape below, complete with a mix of unsavory street characters, forgotten plants inside a shuttered park, and a generous amount of flashing neon lights emanating from across the street. Angel’s Flight has such a precarious connection to the natural world, yet the world above was really compelling, calling to me to stay just a little longer.

I am sure in short time urban development will engulf and surround what is left of the natural world in Downtown Los Angeles. Angel’s Flight represents a small oasis and a missed opportunity to appreciate the joys of nature within a busy city.

I wish the park at Angel’s Flight could reopen and remain an urban park – a garden-like legacy to the generations that rode the funicular decades before. Pondering security, it felt safer at the top. Perhaps it was a false sense of security, but one comforted by the illusion of visibility and uniformity. While walking the surrounding areas, I couldn’t help notice the city blocks are so devoid of natural. I believe integrating sections of nature across a city can help make it feel more safe and welcoming. But times are changing, with numerous Los Angeles projects reintegrating nature into the city. I, for one, am ready to welcome that change and all the benefits it may bring to Los Angeles.

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