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COAST LETTER

Angels Flight--a Link That Doesn't Bind

January 22, 1992|ROBERT A. JONES

They have decided to bring back the Angels Flight railway. A couple of months ago they hauled the old station house from wherever it was stored and planted it behind a chain-link fence down on 4th Street. Soon, they say, the serious work will begin.

I'm sure you are familiar with the "they" to whom I refer. This is the ubiquitous, shadowy, omniscient, controlling "they" of downtown Los Angeles. The "they" of the mayor's office and the big law firms and the banks and the Community Redevelopment Agency, the "they" who promised us a 24-hour downtown and brought us Bunker Hill instead.

In any case, they've decided that the time has come for a restoration of Angels Flight. After 22 years sitting in a basement, the railway once again will haul passengers from the flats of downtown to the top of Bunker Hill.

When this event happens, they will sell it as the restoration of a piece of cultural history. Something cute for the tourists. Sixteen people at a time will pile onto the funicular and ride up and down the hill, 19th-Century style.

Do not be fooled. The restoration of Angels Flight actually represents something much more important. It signals the symbolic end--and only the symbolic end--of a policy that led to the virtual apartheid of downtown Los Angeles. When it starts running, the gleaming towers of Bunker Hill will have a physical connection to the "other" downtown for the first time in decades.

For those of you who do not work downtown and therefore have never seen the place, let me describe how downtown apartheid came about. In the late 1960s, Los Angeles decided to anoint Bunker Hill as the official redevelopment zone for downtown. The old, Victorian mansions were cleared away and Bunker Hill was made ready for its future.

Strictly speaking, this plan proved wildly successful. Office towers sprouted like dandelions only two blocks from the old center. Downtown was "saved," so much so that Mayor Tom Bradley used the transformation as a central theme in his last reelection campaign.

But in the process, the city carried out one of the strangest policies in the history of redevelopment. In his book, "City of Quartz," social historian Mike Davis described it this way: "to emphasize the 'security' of the new Downtown, virtually all the traditional pedestrian links to the old center, including the famous Angels Flight funicular railroad, were removed."

"Along the base of (Bunker Hill)," he writes, "Hill Street became a local Berlin wall separating the publicly subsidized luxury of Bunker Hill from the (Latino) world of Broadway."

It was eerie. If you were strolling through the old center--say around Broadway and 3rd--and decided to walk to the new Bunker Hill, you were confronted by this wall of no-entry buildings and concrete ramparts that extended for blocks along Hill Street. No sidewalks, no walkways of any kind led into Bunker Hill.

I'm not saying it was impossible to get there. You could choose to make the long journey to 1st Street, then up to Hope, then down Hope to the heart of the new stuff. Not impossible, just difficult.

Either way, it worked. The great unwashed of Broadway were seldom seen on the sidewalks of Bunker Hill. Downtown evolved into two worlds, almost perfectly segregated from each other: the white world of the new towers, and the brown world of the old center. They were--and still are--like parallel universes where each goes about its business without recognizing the other's existence.

Now, finally, the most famous of the old links is being re-established. Actually, it is not the first. A year ago, a single walkway from Hill Street into Bunker Hill appeared without fanfare. It's unmarked and you have to know where to look, but it's there.

And soon, "they" say, Angels Flight itself will be up and running, just like the old days, carrying whomever between the old core and Bunker Hill. They say it will happen before the end of 1993.

You might figure that the motive for all this is official chagrin over the old policy of unadmitted apartheid. But apparently not.

The real reason, it seems, has to do with new money coming into the old core along Hill Street. They say redevelopment is spreading outside the old boundaries. A flophouse has been restored to hotel status by Japanese investors, and already you can order a cappuccino at the Grand Central Market.

So actually it's only money accommodating money. But maybe I'm splitting hairs here. The Angels Flight is coming back. The old boundaries are getting blurred. Things are better than they were.

That's what they say.

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