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Say a Prayer for the Red Car Revival

November 29, 1998|PATT MORRISON

In Paris, legends gather about the cathedral spires like mists of Chanel No. 5--the Hunchback, the Lady of the Camellias, Madame Defarge. London's fog swirls evocatively about the swiftly moving shapes of Jack the Ripper and Diana, the tragic princess.

And L.A.? True to type, we wax nostalgic about . . . transportation.

And why not? This is one case where wistful hindsight is not entirely myopic. Just about everything about the Red Cars was agreeable, never mind the hard wooden seats and the open-air cooling system.

From the beginning of the century, and for a half-century, it was the model and the marvel of urban mass transit. For the price of a nickel or a dime or two bits, the trolley whizzed over more than a thousand miles of track laid across the orange-fragrant landscape, carrying businessmen to the squat suites of downtown low-rises. It whisked families from the desert to the plashing waters of Balboa Island, and tourists from downtown to the heights of Mt. Lowe.

Now to some, public transit seems only slightly less desperate than hitchhiking; then, Red Car ridership was cheerfully democratic. Even the death of the trolley system in the early '60s was attended by rich conspiracy theories: The oil companies killed it, the tire companies, the auto companies.

George Eslinger wondered whether anybody would be interested in seeing the Red Cars revived; he practically got trampled in the stampede.


George Eslinger never rode the red Cars. He drove to his job as head of the city's street lighting bureau. Before he retired, he found an astonishing connection: The vintage street lights, in their 27 ornate incarnations, once also served to tie in the overhead electric lines that powered the Red Cars, which were interurban trolleys, and their urban counterpart, the Yellow Cars.

Eslinger's ambition started modestly enough. He thought it might be nice if that patch of empty land near where Beverly and Glendale boulevards and 2nd Street converge west of downtown could serve as a combined park and Red Car memorial. That's the place where 100,000 passengers a day once passed into the mile-long tunnel beneath Bunker Hill, to disgorge at the grand Pacific Electric building at 6th and Hill.

Float a bad idea and people can't run from it fast enough. Haul out a good one and everyone wants not only to ride along but to take a turn at the wheel as well. So it has been with Eslinger's new nonprofit group, working to bring back the extinct Red Car. He jokes that his red pencil has been worn to a nub appending other people's wish-list routes from a downtown circuit to the virtually incommutable reaches of the city:

The Red Car could siphon off traffic at the end of the Glendale Freeway; it could run parallel to Metrolink out to San Fernando with a stop at the zoo; it could follow its old Normandie route down to San Pedro, and it could roll out to the East Side, where subway plans were just deep-sixed by the voters.

The system had a history more suited to a roller coaster--millions of passenger miles a year in the 1920s, a shift from fares to freight in the 1930s, a revival in the 1940s to serve wartime traffic and a slow death through the 1950s as people streamed out on the new freeways to buy the R-1 dream, complete with a garage and a car to park in it.

Eslinger has found that the system isn't necessarily some lost transit Eden, a Humpty Dumpty impossible to reassemble. Some rights of way were sold off for a dollar and are still unbuilt. Along some streets and boulevards, the trolley tracks still lie intact, just beneath the paved surface.

Eslinger has made his ardent pitch to three county supervisors, six city council members, more than a dozen business groups and 17 agencies, private and public, including the biggie, the Community Redevelopment Agency, whose management expressed interest in his feasibility study.

So, too, did businessman and property owner Walter J. Thomson, who gave Eslinger his very first check. Thomson's late wife's grandfather, the French restaurateur Victor Dol, bought land along Spring Street and Broadway back when it was pasturage, and it is still in the family. Thomson, who was a little boy when he took the Red Car to Hermosa Beach to comb the sand for moonstones, would love nothing more than to see the Red Cars once again shuttling up and down those familiar streets.

Practicalities? Sure, it'd be expensive. But at the end of the day, the city would have brought back "transportation chic" sufficient to entice us out of our cars, authentic enough to please the tourists drawn by our ersatz attractions. It would be a thing of utility and beauty that would have been a joy forever had it not been foolishly dismantled in the first place.

And now here's a second chance to make it right, and wouldn't it just show those cable-car snobs in Frisco? Yeah, you heard me--Frisco.

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