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Chinatown Lights the Way

Streetlight Fever Is Raging Just North of Cesar Chavez Avenue

October 19, 2003|LESLEE KOMAIKO

A couple of years ago, business owners in Chinatown learned that the streetlights along Broadway were scheduled for replacement by the city. That meant more of the standard-issue cobra-head lamps that illuminate most large L.A. thoroughfares: a streamlined, modern design nearly invisible in its ubiquity.

But revitalization is the order of the day in Chinatown, and the neighborhood soon found itself on the cutting edge of a boom in L.A. streetlight design.

In pursuit of a more distinctive ambience for the area, members of the Chinatown Business Improvement District chipped in slightly more than $200,000 to supplement the nearly $300,000 the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting had budgeted. "Prior to destination projects like Universal City Walk, Chinatown was the original theme project,'' says George Yu, executive director of the improvement district.

After consulting with the bureau, the business owners decided to replace the area's 50 existing streetlights with 50 dark green poles topped with retro-style teardrop pendant lamps. They also added 42 "post-top" pedestrian lights featuring windowed lamps shaped like Asian temples and decorated with gold detail motifs, including a Chinese dragon. The lights along Broadway, between Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and Cottage Home Street, were installed in September. More likely will follow on Hill Street next year.

The improvement group and the bureau studied streetlights in several major U.S. Chinatowns as well as concept drawings from manufacturers. Yu says he and his business colleagues "all understood that the landscape of Chinatown needed to improve. We're trying to attract more evening traffic. When I first came to Chinatown back in '77, numerous restaurants were open specifically for the midnight snack business, up to 3 in the morning." Chinatown is indeed spiffing up, but it's also true that streetlight fever seems to be sweeping Los Angeles. "We're getting a lot more requests for different-style poles," says Norma Marrero, senior street lighting engineer with the bureau. Retro is hot. There's a new commitment on the bureau's end to "rehabilitate and replicate the old vintage street lights instead of replacing them with modern poles," says Ed Ebrahimian, the bureau's assistant director. Examples include the almost-completed rehabilitation of the classic fixtures in Outpost Estates near La Brea and Franklin avenues, as well as a soon-to-commence project along Wilshire Boulevard between Hoover Street and Wilton Place.

For those in search of inspiration, historic L.A. streetlights are on display at the "Vermonica" installation in the parking lot of the Staples store at Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue. And "Light Up the Night: Streetlights of Los Angeles" is on view at downtown's Museum of Neon Art through March 21.

Any day now, work is slated to begin along Hollywood Boulevard between Sycamore Avenue and Gower Street to replace the old metal boxes with retro-style pendant luminaries. "It's the old look," says Hagop Tujian, the Bureau of Street Lighting division manager in charge of the Hollywood project. "Anyone who has old Hollywood pictures will see those units. It's going back to the way it used to look, but with excellent lighting levels."

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