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Old Tunnel May Be Tagged as a Landmark

A relic of Los Angeles' Red Car trolley era has become a shrine of sorts to graffiti. Now a developer wants to build on the site.

September 15, 2004|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

In its heyday 60 years ago, the Belmont Tunnel was a prime passageway into Los Angeles, an early experiment in using a subway to move people across the city. Thousands of Red Car trolley passengers traversed it daily in their journey between downtown and Hollywood.

Today, the darkened tunnel set into a hill just west of downtown's gleaming skyscrapers is an outpost of urban decay.

The ground is littered with garbage and spray-paint cans. A building that once served as an electric substation for the trolleys is now a hollow, reeking, concrete shell. And nearly every bit of paintable surface -- walls, rails, even the bark on a few scruffy trees -- is covered with graffiti.

The land has sat for decades as a sort of no-man's land -- a place for homeless people to sleep, taggers to use as a canvas and drug addicts to shoot up. Then, earlier this year, the new property owner proposed tearing down the tunnel and replacing it with a 276-unit apartment complex.

The plan has sparked a growing movement to preserve the tunnel, not as a relic of the past, but as a monument to Los Angeles' underground graffiti culture. Today the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to grant cultural landmark status to the tunnel -- a key step in efforts to save it.

The tunnel's fate reflects the tricky embrace of graffiti by the art world and popular culture. The issue comes up even as some -- including Police Chief William J. Bratton -- argue that tagging is nothing more than vandalism and often a precursor to more serious crimes. In the end, the preservation effort may end up giving the Belmont lot a mainstream legitimacy that could turn away taggers who feel that their work in its purest form must be unsanctioned and illegal.

Since the early 1980s, the tunnel has been the internationally recognized epicenter of West Coast graffiti. Many of the lot's constantly replenished murals have been featured in magazines, photography books, art history textbooks and documentaries. Taggers come from all over -- San Francisco, Chicago, New York, London -- to paint there and document the murals. Art students from Japan make the pilgrimage to the lot where 2nd Street and Glendale Boulevard meet in the shadow of downtown to soak up the atmosphere.

"One could easily oversimplify this place and call it an urban ruin, but it's actually a monument to a very unique moment in the city's history in the '20s and then to the survival and future of its neighborhood life," said Norman Klein, an author and urban theorist at the California Institute of the Arts, who has given his students and others tours of the site.

The tunnel has seeped into popular culture as the gritty setting for numerous movies, TV shows and music videos.

"It's beautiful in its own, odd way. It's a real piece of Americana, but L.A. Americana with the graffiti walls," said Stevie Nelson, a Hollywood location scout who has worked at the Belmont lot during shooting for various projects, including the films "Deep Cover" and "Where the Day Takes You."

That exposure, however, may end up having the same effect as bulldozers, with some veteran taggers saying the tunnel is slowly being stripped of its supposed authenticity.

Unit One, who runs the popular L.A. graffiti website, says that when out-of-town taggers e-mail him asking how to find the tunnel, he declines the requests.

"The reason that Belmont's cool is because not every Joe can go down there and paint. There's gangsters, there's cops," said Unit, who, like most other taggers, declines to use his real name. "When you take that away, everyone's going to go down there."


Decades before Los Angeles began building its modern light rail-subway system, the Belmont Tunnel was the city's first foray into underground transit.

By the 1920s, the city's 1,100-mile Pacific Electric trolley system competed for space on downtown's bustling streets with an increasing number of automobiles. To avoid the downtown traffic, the "Hollywood Subway" was built for lines headed toward Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and Burbank.

The trolley system succumbed to the postwar freeway age. The last Red Car to roll through the tunnel on June 19, 1955, carried a sign that read "To Oblivion."

Over time, the tracks were removed. The old electrical substation building lay hollow and empty.

In 1967, the city filled in part of the tunnel to accommodate the foundations for the Bonaventure Hotel. The vacant Toluca Yard, as it was known, attracted squatters and drug dealers. Gangs moved in.

Historians believe not much of anything significant happened at the lot until late 1984, when a budding graffiti tagger named Shandu "discovered" it.

Shandu, whose real name is Hector Calderon, was a 17-year-old senior at Belmont High School when the graffiti phenomenon exploded in Southern California. Calderon is credited with painting the first large-scale graffiti "piece" in the Belmont Tunnel that year. It read "Risko City."

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