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.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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