LA's streetcars: still shaping the city’s development 50 years after closing

The P Line trolley crosses Alameda Street in Little Tokyo, c1918. Image courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library & Archive.

When people think of Los Angeles, one image that might come to mind is, appropriately enough, from LA Story. The movie begins as Steve Martin proudly announces he’s off to visit a friend. He hops into his car and drives off to his friend’s house – two houses down from his own.

This stereotype of car-centric Los Angeles, irritating though it may be for some natives like myself, has plenty of truth to it. But according to a new study, another kind of car is still having a big effect on Los Angeles today: the streetcar.

When the city first began to develop in the 1880s, streetcars were by far the best way to get around (their biggest competition at the time was from horses and, surprisingly, bicycles). The network grew quickly, built in most cases by real estate developers looking to increase the value of their land for resale.

The various competing lines were bought in 1901 by Henry Huntington, creating a single system. The Pacific Electric network would become the longest in the world, and make Huntington a local kingpin. To this day there are still avenues, museums, even beaches that bear his name.

But since the company’s main income was generated from selling real estate and not train fares, it had no way to support itself once all its lands were sold. In addition, cars became cheaper and more common; they also seemed more modern than the trams, which evoked both poor service and private greed. To make matters worse, since the trams shared road space with cars, the rise of the automobile made them move much slower.

Pacific Electric began closing lines one by one during the 40s and 50s. Eventually, the company was purchased by General Motors, whose goal was to speed up the closure of the lines in order to sell more motor vechiles; the last streetcar in Los Angeles rumbled to a halt in April 1961.  Many called this a conspiracy, and a federal judge agreed, fining GM and other companies involved all of one dollar.

Even without the conspiracy, though, it’s pretty clear that Pacific Electric would have folded. By that time, the city was investing heavily in roads with massive support from the federal government, while the streetcar system was left to rot. The general public was too busy driving around on the new freeways to notice.

The conventional wisdom became that streetcars were an important part of LA’s history but had no place in its future. This view was perhaps best summed up by British architect Reyner Banham in his classic 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, a pro-car anthem which glorified the new freeways as “works of art” and took a few pot shots at urbanist Jane Jacobs for good measure (Banham also made a documentary about LA with the BBC which makes many of the same arguments). In the book, Banham recognised the role streetcars had played in the city’s development. But he opined snarkily that to assign them any importance during his time would be “to ignore observable facts”.

But a recent report at Zocalo Public Square, by Leah Brooks and Byron Lutz, suggests that the influence of the streetcar network is alive and well, even 50 years after it was closed down. The researchers compared the density of census blocks with their proximity to former streetcar stop locations. It found that, in areas within 1km of former stops, there is a dramatic uptick in density.

The study also has two other interesting findings. First, this increased density comes despite lower per-unit occupancy rates closer to former streetcar stops.

Second, and more importantly, the growth in density near streetcar stops has continued long after the streetcars shut down. For areas within 300m of former stops, density has increased from 4,000 people per km2 in 1960 to nearly 6,000 people per km2 in 2010. Brooks and Lutz attribute this to two factors: density friendly zoning codes near former stops, and “the self-reinforcing economic benefits of density”, known as agglomeration.

The influence of the streetcar can be seen not only in sophisticated data analyses but by looking at the city itself. Density and jobs in greater LA are centred around former tram stops: the longer distance “red cars”, but especially the “yellow car” streetcars which served the core of what is now central Los Angeles.

According to another recent study from the University of Minnesota, reported at CityLab, Los Angeles ranks third in the US in terms of jobs accessible by walking and transit. Their map of Los Angeles shows an uncanny resemblance to the former yellow car system.

And yet, Los Angeles is widely recognised as the car capital of the world. Even though these studies indicate that Los Angeles is dense enough so that many people could get to work by transit, most still choose not to. And the reason they choose not to could be because so many important cultural figures, from academics like Reyner Banham to movie stars like Steve Martin, convince them not to.

This map also highlights an uncomfortable truth about LA. The city does in fact have dense neighbourhoods – but unlike in US cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, wealthier residents associate nearly all of these neighbourhoods with poverty and crime. The tastemakers in academia and in Hollywood (the industry, not the neighbourhood – big difference) tend not to visit areas like Westlake, Koreatown, or Boyle Heights. These areas have thus become seen as a no man’s land for anyone laying claim to respectability.

This is slowly beginning to change. Trains are running once again in Los Angeles, and the new system is doing surprisingly well. A 2013 report from the Los Angeles Times found that residents near the newly opened Expo Line, which runs along a former red car route, tripled their transit use once the line opened. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the city’s unrecognised density played a factor.

In terms of transit’s cultural stigma, LA is still fighting an uphill battle. Most people have a hard time seeing the city as anything other than a sprawling, car choked wasteland.

But that too is showing signs of turning around as celebrities in “the industry”, long ambivalent toward their own city, start to recognise LA’s more dense urban side. TV host Jimmy Kimmel turned heads by taking public transit to this year’s Emmys. And a recent groundbreaking ceremony for a new train line in Downtown LA was opened by George Takei, who couldn’t help but make a few references to his time as a crew member on the USS Enterprise.

Public transit still has a long way to go in LA, and city authorities aren’t always receptive to non-car transportation options. But these new studies show that the streetcar friendly structure LA inherited from its early days is still in place. There’s hope for those who wish to see the City of Angels break its addiction to the car after all.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.