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ANGELS FLIGHT CRASH | PATT MORRISON

Angels Flight Bridges the City's History

February 02, 2001|PATT MORRISON

It was the one thing from the past that we would not let go without a fight.

A pity that they brought down the grand Richfield building, all black and gold, the colors of oil and money. A shame that they took a wrecking ball to the old red sandstone courthouse. And too bad they let the Pan Pacific Auditorium go to ruin until a bum with a match gave them an excuse not to trouble themselves further about it.

But that was progress and this was Los Angeles, the magic-slate city, scribbled on by one generation, wiped clean by the next to start all over again. The back-lot sets of Hollywood had a better claim on permanence, and that troubled us not at all.

Yet Angels Flight, we never forgot.

Angelenos still unborn when it stopped running could grow misty over its unremembered pleasures. Of those who were hurt aboard the ride on Thursday, when the little car named Sinai plunged tragically into the one named Olivet, the youngest was 3 years old when Angels Flight went into storage. The eldest, the man who died and his grievously injured wife, were a couple who shared more than 160 years between them, old enough to have sought memories of Angels Flight then in a moment of now.

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It began its work on the last day of the year 1901, a sturdy little mule of a funicular lifting passengers 400 times each day from the shops at the bottom of the bluff to Millionaires' Row at the top.

There were other incline railways in this city of hills--Court Flight, a few blocks up Broadway, one on Mt. Washington, another out on Catalina and the most spectacular of them all way up on Mt. Lowe. But they vanished, and Angels Flight kept moving.

It ran its last run on May 18, 1969. In the decades to come, 4,000 people would claim to have been sitting in one of its 50 seats for that last ride.

They took Angels Flight down in the name of urban renewal. It would be back in two years, they said, then three, then five, then "soon," then silence. The chubby wooden cars, painted cartoon-orange and black, reposed, at the cost of $225 a month, in some storage yard in South L.A.

And the city moved onward, if it no longer moved upward, up Bunker Hill.

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Such a little hill, really, and yet such a big distance.

The top of that hill was on the city map in 1850, the year that California became a state, but it might as well have been in Washington, D.C., for all the good of it. Even in 1867, Prudent Beaudry was pitied as a fool for paying $517 for 20 acres of "howling coyote wilderness" when there was so much good flatland to be had.

The rich, as the rich will, liked the notion of their geography reflecting their elevated station, and soon the town's big men built themselves big houses on the Bunker Hill bluff, all leaded glass and egg-and-dart molding, stylish carriage houses and deep gardens, mansions worthy of the august names of Crocker and Bradbury and Widney.

It was a railroad man, a Civil War colonel and a friend of Abe Lincoln's named James Ward Eddy, who undertook to build Angels Flight. Its block-long route bore the grand name of Los Angeles Electric Incline Railway Company. The delighted ladies of Bunker Hill found it most useful for descending to shop at the City of Paris department store, where Grand Central Market stands now. People called it "the one-cent line," for the penny fare. If even that was beyond one's means, the colonel had generously built a flight of 207 stairs.

The laws of physics being no respecter of class, if the rich could ride down, the poor could ride up. First it was tourists, who sent home penny postcards about their penny ride. In time the rich men moved on, and their houses became hotels, then boardinghouses, then whorehouses and flophouses. The movie people showcased Bunker Hill's seedy noir warrens from the windows of Angels Flight. At last the redevelopment people took over, and in 1969 they boxed up Angels Flight like an O-gauge toy and put it away.

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As the years passed and bulldozers finished their work and the new office towers on Bunker Hill rose and filled and prospered, the whispers grew that Angels Flight would never be back.

They murmured that the people on the flatlands, in the vivid Broadway shops and pungent food markets, had become browner and poorer, and the people on the hilltop, grown whiter and richer, liked it just fine that a long and daunting climb stood between them. Their modern turrets had a vertical moat, unbridged by any clattering little railway--so be it. Downtown, such as it was, was set to show itself as divided by color as the squares on a chessboard, as the rest of this city.

The nostalgists, for once, would not be turned aside, and in February 1996, Angels Flight was reopened. It has not wholly breached the moat, but it has gone some way to mend the rupture between the city's center and the people who forsook it--as well as those who never believed it existed in the first place.

The penny-a-ride tourists are back, at a quarter apiece now. Locals hop aboard for lunch, for a meeting, for a respite. But don't be mistaken: The urban epiphany goes only so far. I came here after Angels Flight disappeared, and of all the lost monuments of this city, it was Angels Flight--that, and the Big Red Cars--that people kept saying I should have been here to see.

Leave it to Los Angeles to expend its nostalgia not on a place, but on the means of getting to one.

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Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com

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