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You may be familiar with this scene from 500 Days of Summer: a young couple sitting at a bench at the top of Angels Knoll Park and looking upon the city below.

You may be familiar with this scene from 500 Days of Summer: a young couple sitting at a bench at the top of Angels Knoll Park, looking upon the city below.

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.

Angel’s Flight by Millard Sheets

Angel’s Flight by Millard Sheets

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.

On a related historical note,  Angels Flight had a lesser known (yet steeper_ counterpart, the Court Flight. More about it at On Bunker Hill.

On a related historical note, Angels Flight had a lesser known (yet steeper) counterpart, the Court Flight. More about it at On Bunker Hill.

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.

postcard-angels-flight

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-1910

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.

Creative Commons Photo: Angels Flight, December 2011 by Sgerbic

Creative Commons Photo: Angels Flight, December 2011 by Sgerbic

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.”

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

Although we were asked to look back at this year’s collection of Lab posts to share, it was a post written a few years ago that still resonates as the most memorable personally.  A Dream Now Off Limits: Angel’s Flight Park – written by Calvin Abe – triggered an emotional response I’ve never forgotten, evoking a lasting sorrow for the loss of a community space with such potential. Alongside this sadness, questions about the value of nature in society are also awakened by Calvin’s words and photos.

Calvin’s post is about a forgotten public park across the street from Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles. Located at the landing of the historic Angels Flight, the park was closed off from the public shortly after its opening due to the lack of funding for maintenance. Although the park did not have active use space such as a play field or play area, it did provide a shady escape from the city. I recognize the park might have been presented a challenge for city agencies; there isn’t always an immediate value recognized for passive recreation. But I strongly believe that publicly accessible open spaces are a valuable commodity in any densely populated neighborhood. Even a place to rest or eat your lunch is an important community resource within an urban environment. Of course, I’m biased…every time I see the fenced off Angels Knoll Park, I can only imagine all of the unrealized memories the park could have played host to, and our city’s failure to protect those hopes and dreams.

The original post here: A Dream Now Off Limits: Angel’s Flight Park

Photo: Calvin Abe

Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

I had a dream about 15 years ago about creating a beautiful park at the corner of 4th and Hill Street in Los Angeles. Today, this dream has become an embarrassment, completely closed to the public. I designed it. But more importantly I believe it is a shameful reminder of our societal value of nature and open space.

Photo: Calvin Abe

Photo: Calvin Abe

Abandoned, closed, and fenced off for over five years ago, Angel’s Flight Park has been an eyesore and a constant reminder of our forgotten unmaintained parks in the city. Angel’s Flight Park was decommissioned when the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (LA/CRA) was forced to shut down by the Governor’s budget cutbacks caused by the 2008 recession. It was over 15 years ago that the LA/CRA, in partnership with LA Metro, came together to fund the enhancement to an important Bunker Hill subway portal. The plaza was a deliberate urban design move to connect the portal to the historic Angel’s Flight Funicular (also closed due to budget cutbacks). It was also intended to provide a shady respite and offer public open space for the adjacent Grand Central Market visitors and local residents.

Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

Maybe there is the possibility of a renewed dream to end this nightmare of the Angel’s Flight Park.

Creative Commons photo by Allie_Caulfield (CC BY 2.0)

Creative Commons photo by Allie_Caulfield (CC BY 2.0)

Will we be riding Angels Flight by Labor Day?: “Wednesday, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti made an announcement that historic preservationists, tourists, and downtown residents have been waiting and hoping for for years: Angels Flight, the historic little railway that goes up Bunker Hill, will reopen in a few months.”

Why Is the Drought Not Over Yet?: “Those of us who look at water never want to get too comfortable,” Feldman says. “I suspect that’s one of the reasons officials are reluctant to drop the declaration of drought — the fear that we might go back to old habits.”

International competition to design an island: The University of Pennsylvania’s LA+ (Landscape Architecture Plus) journal has launched a US$10,000 international ideas competition to design a hypothetical island. The competition asks entrants to conceive a new island or archipelago of islands that can be located anywhere in the world. The island(s) can be in any form and have any program, but must not exceed a total surface area of one square kilometre.

Architects and designers are no good at altering your mental topography: “After leaving, you see where you are completely differently, your mental topography altered and filtered in a way that the heritage culture tropes of “psychogeographic” writing no longer can…Architects and designers are not good at this.”

Turquoise waters, white sandy cliffs and highways swallowed by sand: Irenaeus Herok is a Polish commercial photographer specialising in landscape, architecture and portraiture…The talented landscape photographer has captured both the vibrant colours of untouched terrains and the mind-blowing architecture and infrastructure re-shaping the region.

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.