Pedestrian tunnels built in the 1920s and 1930s as a way across busy streets have become smelly, dangerous lairs for gangs, graffiti artists and drunken slumberers.
"It's a rat's nest. I wouldn't go under there if you paid me," Jeanette Owens said the other day as she surveyed the trash-littered entrance to a pedestrian tunnel on Fletcher Drive near Atwater Avenue in Atwater.
Because many people feel the same way, the city in recent years has sealed off more and more of Los Angeles' 221 tunnels. Of 24 in the Northeast Los Angeles area, about 10 now are surrounded by permanently locked chain-link fences, according to the Department of Public Works. Several more near elementary schools are guarded by fences that are unlocked only just before, during and after school hours.
In the coming months, public works officials said, they plan to erect fences around three more such tunnels in Northeast Los Angeles. They include the debris-filled walkway underneath Fletcher at Atwater. The others are on Figueroa Street at Arroyo Glen Street in Highland Park and at Glendale Boulevard near Atwater Avenue in Atwater.
The closings come after more than a year of petitioning by neighbors.
"It is a nice place for muggings and child molestation . . . it doesn't serve its intended purposes," Edward R. Waite, president of the Atwater Homeowner Assn., wrote to city officials last year.
City Councilman Joel Wachs, who formerly represented parts of Atwater and Highland Park, supported the closings. So did police Capt. Noel Cunningham, who commands the Northeast Division. He said in a letter to Public Works that three crimes were reported near the Atwater-Fletcher tunnel during six months in 1986.
In some places the city has installed mirrors so would-be users can determine whether anyone is lying in wait. Still, the underground crosswalks are mostly dark, dank and rank, despite weak electric lights that shine inside 24 hours a day.
Graffiti cover the walls. The remains of discarded meals and excrement smear the floors. Empty beer bottles are scattered around.
Public works officials say it costs about $13,000 to close a tunnel, almost twice what it cost to construct one 60 years ago. Spokesman Steve Nagai said the department must dip into a $300,000 annual "Bridge and Tunnel Maintenance Account" to seal tunnels. Other options include asking City Council to appropriate money from a contingency account of the Capital Improvements General Fund or the Capital Improvements Fund, but those requests move at a glacier-like pace, he said.
Usually the underground walkways are sealed off by locking a chain-link fence around each end. A more expensive and less popular method is to fill in the tunnel with concrete. That costs about $48,000, said Nagai. (About 20 of the city's 110 pedestrian tunnels are now filled with concrete).
Nagai said his department can't keep up with requests to close tunnels. Pending requests include two in the San Fernando Valley and one on the Westside of Los Angeles. Permanent closure requires City Council approval and leaves less money for maintenance, Nagai said. "The city has limited money and doesn't like it spent on boarding up tunnels," he said.
Morton H. Rosen, a public works engineer in charge of tunnel and bridge inspection for the city, said some tunnels require cleaning twice a day. The average is once a week.
"One or two hours after the crews leave, the tunnels look just like they did before they were inspected," said Rosen. "The smell will tell you that you don't want to be there."
Vagrants Slept There
It wasn't the smell alone that prompted Fletcher Drive Elementary School in Atwater to ask that the city lock up the pedestrian tunnel at Fletcher Drive near Estara Avenue. Vagrants would sleep in the tunnel and scare schoolchildren. On occasion the police had to be called, one administrator recalled.
In 1975, the city installed fencing on both ends of the tunnel. School officials were given keys to open the tunnel during class hours. Otherwise it remained locked.
LeRoy Christensen, Fletcher Drive's principal, who formerly taught at a Silver Lake elementary school near Sunset Boulevard and Micheltorena Street, said the pedestrian tunnel near that school was often invaded by nighttime vandals who broke through the locked fence to get inside.
Most tunnels were built in the 1920s and the 1930s with more than $1 million from bond issues approved by Los Angeles voters, according to published reports. A predecessor to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Evening Herald, led the tunnel-building campaign to "save the lives of children."
Many Uses for Tunnels