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SURROUNDINGS / HIGHLAND PARK

Getting the Slant on L.A.'s Steepest Street

The law of gravity is strictly enforced when living on a 33% grade. Stretches in San Pedro, Echo Park and Silver Lake also stake claims.

August 21, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

There's a steep price to pay for living on Eldred Street.

You have cars that run away. Truck cargos that roll away. Mail carriers who fade away. Visitors who turn around and go away.

"To live here, you learn what you can and can't do," said Ric Phiegh, whose Highland Park home is on the steepest street in Los Angeles.

In a city bisected by a mountain range and laced with hills and ridges, that distinction is high praise.

Experts calculate that Eldred gains 219 feet in elevation as it climbs a stomach-clutching 33% grade between Avenue 50 and Cross Avenue on the side of Mt. Washington.

True, a portion of a street in San Pedro has a tiny stretch of pavement with a 33.3% grade. But Eldred is in an elevated class of its own because the slope runs for a long stretch.

Special scaled-down garbage trucks are assigned to pick up trash on Eldred Street each Tuesday morning.

And their two-man crews back up the steep incline before inching their way down the street to pick up trash.

That way their truck won't tip over when they try to turn around at the top of street.

Letter carriers have given up on house-to-house deliveries, although one longtime mailman braved the slope in a squeaky-braked truck for years.

Mail is now distributed in group mailboxes at the base of the hill.

Some street maps mistakenly suggest that Eldred is a through street. But a rickety wooden stairway connects its dead end with Cross Avenue farther up the hill.

Eldred residents have been known to rescue unsuspecting motorists from the top of their street by volunteering to drive stranded, panic-stricken strangers' cars down for them.

"One thing you cannot do is get off the paved road if it's raining or wet. You'll slide sideways down the hill," said Phiegh, 46-year-old construction inspector who has lived on the street for seven years.

One neighbor's car slid down the driveway into the street and then rolled down Eldred, zigzagging down the hill without hitting anything until it veered off the road, ran up on a small embankment and flipped over on its roof and hood, he said.

"Luckily no one was in it. My neighbor ran out screaming, 'My car! My car!' " he said. "Another time, I used an 8-foot 2-by-4 to pry a police car off the wall in my frontyard after it slid downhill into it."

Neighbor Rob Schraff, a 43-year-old advertising writer, said he gives friends specific instructions on how to navigate the hill the first time they visit.

Nonetheless, some suffer from high anxiety after they park on the steep slant and struggle with gravity to open and close their car doors.

Ken Utley, a 79-year-old former pipe fitter who has lived near the top of Eldred for 47 years, recalled the time a trash truck tried to turn around at the dead end and got hung up on sloping dirt next to the street.

It took experts 12 hours to free the truck without it tipping over and rolling down the hill.

"Another time, about 35 years ago, an Arrowhead water truck tried to back up and turn around and it tilted and lost the left half of its load. Big bottles of water rolled all the way down the hill," Utley said.

Eldred Street was constructed in 1912 and named for Delos W. Eldred, who owned the property around the turn of the 20th century.

On clear days, it offers a commanding view of Highland Park against a backdrop of Mt. Wilson and Mt. Baldy to the east.

But they don't make streets like that anymore in Los Angeles.

Since the 1950s, the city has limited street grades to about 15%.

That's why only older hillside subdivisions such as those in Silver Lake have roadways with the kind of roller-coaster qualities that Baxter Street boasts.

It's a lengthy, 32% grade that climbs a ridge east of the Silver Lake Reservoir, crosses over the top of the hill and immediately drops off on the other side.

Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car's hood.

Baxter Street was laid out in 1884. Parts of it are paved with grooved concrete designed to improve traction in rainy weather.

Neighboring Fargo, Ewing and Duane streets also have grades in the 32% range.

There are occasional runaway cars on the street, said Mike O'Connor, 61, a retired city planner who has lived on Baxter for 20 years.

And there are occasional crashes on the blind hilltop, according to his brother, 67-year-old Tom O'Connor of San Juan Capistrano.

"I had a head-on collision up there. An oncoming driver had to go around a car that was illegally parked near the top and he was on the wrong side when he reached the top," Tom O'Connor said Tuesday. "Now, I always go down the street and around the hill when I leave here."

The next street over, Fargo, is sometimes described as Los Angeles' steepest street.

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