California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Bunker Hill

California Fool's Gold


The story of Bunker Hill is the story of at least three neighborhoods — maybe more. There’s the posh, Victorian neighborhood of the late 19th Century. There’s also the diverse, working-class neighborhood celebrated in noir fictions of the early 20th Century. Today, there’s the contemporary neighborhood, a collection of corporate high-rises and high culture. As an explorer of neighborhoods, I’m most interested in the latter. 

Bunker Hill

As an explorer of neighborhoods, I feel it my duty to explain that my concern is primarily with the Bunker Hill of today and tomorrow. Bunker Hill’s history is very interesting and there’s much to learn from it, but to focus wholly on things that aren’t here anymore seems a bit akin to walking through a strange museum in which museum tags describe art that was removed half a century ago. The old Bunker Hill lives on in memory, photographs, film, exhibits, &c. If they invent holodecks in my lifetime, I’ll stroll through it, an environment surely as exotic and foreign to me as the villages of the Tongva and one whose redevelopment is no more tragic to me than the displacement of those by the Century Freeway or other projects.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's Map of Bunker Hill
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s Map of Bunker Hill


Bunker Hill is first and foremost, a topographic prominence, a hill named after another in the Charlestown neighborhood Boston, Massachusetts. It’s part of the Elysian Hills,  a chain of sandy siltstone landforms with minor imbedded conglomerate that stretches from Griffith Park to DowntownBefore the arrival of humans, the hills and surrounding area was home to black walnuts, bobcats, California Kingsnakes, Coastal Whiptails, Garter snakes, Gopher snakes, grizzly bears, Mountain Kingsnakes, mountain lions, oaks, steelhead, sycamores, Western fence lizards, and other forms of life.


The first humans entered the picture some 13,000 years ago and were the ancestors of the modern Chumash people. Some 3,500 years ago, they were joined by the ancestors of the Tongva, who arrived from the east. There is evidence of battles between the two on the Channel Islands, but for the most part, the Chumash seem to have by then almost entirely abandoned inland Los Angeles for the coast and islands and the Tongva established villages throughout modern Los Angeles. At least two, Maaw’nga and Yaangna, were located near the base of the hill.


The Spanish claimed the hill and everything else for their vast empire in 1542 but it wasn’t until 1769 that they sent an overland expedition across California to cement their claims. The indigenous people were conquered and the Spanish built a series of presidios and missions to control and exploit them. A town, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles de Porciuncula, was founded in 1781 with Bunker Hill within its original borders. Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810 and achieved it in 1821. California remained part of Mexico until the US conquered the land in 1848. California was granted statehood in 1850.


Prudent Beaudry

Bunker Hill remained almost completely undeveloped before 1867, when a Quebecois named Prudent Beaudry and his business partner Stephen Mott purchased land on the hill. In 1874, the year Beaudry became Los Angeles’s thirteenth mayor (and second Quebecois one), a writer at the Los Angeles Herald wrote: 

Overhanging Los Angeles is a hill similar to Bunker Hill [in Massachusetts]- nay,  it is larger. From it all the city can be seen and the country for miles around. On this hill also, are military marks, the remnants of a fort, which was built for the protection of liberty in this State. This hill has an avenue running along its crest, and our friend Beaudry, through whose influence chiefly it has been opened, has very appropriately named it Bunker Hill avenue. The City Surveyor has been ordered to define the grades and lines of Olive, Charity and Bunker Hill avenue, from Hill to Hope; Second street, and Temple street, from Hill to Hope. This will bring these lands within easy reach of the business part of the city. The distance to the Court House is less than it is from the Turners Hall. Mr. Beaudry being the owner, by perfect and indisputable title, offers the following scheme, believing that it supplies a felt want. His various tracts have been surveyed, and platted 111 lots of convenient size for residences, upwards of two hundred in number, and the maps, together with abstracts of title, are kept for public inspection at his office, opposite the Pico House… The location is very desirable. All that has heretofore been lacking is water, and that want is now fulfilled.

Map of he Mott Tract by H. Pickett, 1869

In 1876, Beaudry’s term as mayorship ended. By the following year, most of the Mott lots had sold and Bunker Hill was the most fashionable district in the city. Before long, however, new suburbs like Angeleno Heights, Crown Hill, Pico Heights, West Adams, and Westlake were developed which began to lure the wealthy further from Los Angeles’s core.

(ca. 1890) View looking west toward Bunker Hill showing the impressive Brunson Mansion at center-right with the Rose Mansion at far left. Note the 150-ft tall streetlight at center-left. (Water and Power Associates)

 By the early 20th century, apartment buildings, hotels, and other commercial buildings populated the increasingly developed district. Bunker Hill’s hilliness once again came to be seen as an impediment rather than an advantage. One person proposed eroding it out of existence, something which had successfully been done to flatten Portland and Seattle. Ultimately, rather than removing the hill, it was decided to go under it.


3rd Street Tunnel is likely the oldest extant human-made feature in Bunker Hill. Construction of the 378-meter long tunnel began in 1899 with the aim of better connecting the neighborhood of Crown Hill to the west of Bunker Hill with Downtown to its east. Contractor C. L. Powell oversaw the project. His criminal negligence claimed the lives of John Vicentini and Major W. T. Lambie in 1900 after they were entombed in what was not the project’s first cave-in. The unpaved, unlit tunnel opened to the public in 1901. An unimpressed writer for the Los Angeles Times colorfully described it:

The new Third-street tunnel is a veritable stench in the nostrils of the public. It is a cesspool of filth, a hotbed of disease. Stagnant pools of malaria-infested mud and water are here, there and everywhere throughout the 350 yards of Cimmerian gloom. Filthy seepage water drips over sidewalk and roadway throughout its entire length. At night its Stygian darkness is unlighted by a single ray, while the periodically-falling plaster from the arch overhead is a constant menace to life.

3rd Street Tunnel
View of the 3rd Street Tunnel and Angels Flight in the early 20th Century

The tunnel was paved in 1902. In part to alleviate traffic in the tunnel, a second tunnel, the 2nd Street Tunnel, opened in 1924. In 1968 its western end was extended an additional 36 meters. In 1981, its eastern end was rebuilt as part of the development of Angelus Plaza. The central part was rebuilt in 1983 along with the development of California Plaza. Much less popular with film crews than its neighbor to the north, it has nonetheless appeared in the films Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) and Darkman (1990).


Angels Flight
Angels Flight

Beginning in 1901, the Los Angeles Incline Railway began operating a short funicular railway between Hill Street at 3rd and Olive Street, parallel to and above the 3rd Street Tunnel. The “World’s Shortest Railway” was served by two cars, named Olivet and Sinai and in 1910 a Beaux-Arts archway labeled “Angels Flight,” was added. In 1912 the railway itself was renamed Angels Flight. In 1962 it was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 4 and it continued to operate until 1969, after the residents it had been built to serve had all been displanted or otherwise moved on.

Angels Flight
Angels Flight in 1963, after most of the buildings have been removed

In 1996 Angels Flight was rebuilt and relocated at its present location. At its new spot it connects Hill Street and the historic Grand Central Market below with the California Plaza above. Its primary purpose, though, was as a tourist attraction and the CRA, former overseers of its operation, allowed the subcontractors who restored it to remove safety features including brakes. In its first 68 years of operation, Angels Flight had only been involved in one fatality, when a sailor named John Gaddy mad the never-wise attempt to walk up the tracks, was struck by one car, and crushed by the other. 

The new and improved brakeless Angels Flight killed Leon Praport in 2001 and injured six others, including his wife. As a result the train was closed. Nine years later the 88 meter-long railway reopened. In 2013, however, a minor accident revealed still-unresolved safety issues. Repairs were apparently made, safety tests were passed, but the attraction remains derailed by terminal bureaucracy.

Detail of Birdseye View Pub. Co. map (1909) by Worthington Gates?
Detail of Birdseye View Pub. Co. map (1909) by Worthington Gates


Second Street Tunnel

In 1924, Bunker Hill’s most filmed feature, the 2nd Street Tunnel, opened. Construction of the tunnel began in 1916, and it was supposed to help reduce the gridlock at 3rd Street Tunnel. Its surfaces are lined with imported, German, white glazed tiles which have made it a popular filming location. Filming nearly always takes place at the western end of the tunnel and walking its length reveals that many of the  tiles have fallen away in many areas the holes are sloppily painted or covered with tape or white paper.  

Times File Photo -- Opening of the Los Angeles 2nd St. Tunnel.
The opening of the 2nd Street Tunnel

At the east end, the odor of human urine is sometimes unbearable and the lack of efforts to maintain the appearance of the tunnel (which is at the very least ten times more interesting than the Walk of Fame or Hollywood sign) are glaringly obvious.

Door inside the Second Street Tunnel

The 2nd Street Tunnel has been featured in films including The Driver (1978), Blade Runner (1982), One Dark Night (1982), Young Doctors in Love (1982), Flashdance (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Annihilators (1985), Police Story: The Freeway Killings (1987), Jack’s Back (1988), The Case of the Hillside Stranglers (1989), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), A Time to Die (1991), Sneakers (1992), Demolition Man (1993), The Disappearance of Christina (1993), Firepower (1993), Another Midnight Run (1994), Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct: Lightning (1995), Cyber-Tracker 2 (1995), The Power Within (1995), Independence Day (1996), Con Air (1997), Gattaca (1997), Money Talks (1997), On the Line (1997), Enemy of the State (1998), Kill Bill (2003), The Butcher (2009), The Soloist (2009), Black November (2012), as well as episodes of several television series, music videos, over a hundred car commercials, and more than a few selfies.


Much of Los Angeles’s growth in the 1900s and 1910s could be attributed to annexations. The towns of Bairdstown, Highland Park, Hollywood, Palms, San Pedro, and Wilmington were during those decades swallowed by the growing city. So too were Rancho Los Felis, most of the San Fernando Valley, and a large portion of land along the Santa Monica Bay. The once fashionable painted ladies of Bunker Hill were subdivided and rented as apartments to the working class, as were newer apartment hotels. 

An episode of Ford Motor Company’s Ford Educational Weekly, designed to promote automobile travel

After 1920 there was little new development in Bunker Hill. In 1924 Los Angeles’s first subway opened, increasing ease of travel between Downtown and its new “toonervilles” (streetcar suburbs so nicknamed because of the popular comic strip, The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains). In 1925, Los Angeles could for the first time make a lamentable new boast — that of having the highest car ownership per capita of any city in the world. Not coincidentally, Los Angeles developed a serious smog problem in the 1940s — although the connection wasn’t immediately made. 

For a time, though, people continued to move to Bunker Hill. Many of the new residents were victims of rezoning; in 1907, the area between Main Street and the Los Angeles River went from being residential to industrial. Others of Bunker Hill’s residents were excluded by racist housing covenants from living in Los Angeles’s suburbs. Bunker Hill was home to immigrants from Mexico, Canada, England, Germany, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere. Filipinos began to refer to the area along 2nd Street as “Little Manila.” Most living on Bunker Hill were young and held jobs in Downtown’s service and manufacturing industries but it was also home to a large population of elderly retirees.

A Drive Through Bunker Hill and Downtown Los Angeles, ca. 1940s. Background process plate produced for an unidentified feature film, shot from an automobile driving through Bunker Hill and downtown Los Angeles.

This is the most celebrated and romanticized episode of Bunker Hill’s existence,  the setting of  both John Fante’s 1939 novel, Ask the Dust and Kent Mackenzie’s quasi-documentary, The Exiles.  This is the Bunker Hill preserved in celluloid and on display in Criss Cross (1949), Cry Danger (1951), Joseph Losey‘s M (1951), Kiss Me Deadly (1956), and Angel’s Flight (1965). It’s the Bunker Hill where Philip Marlowe’s business takes him in the episode of the radio drama, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, titled “The Baton Sinister.” It’s the Bunker Hill in which the great Jack Webb (Dragnet, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Johnny Madero, Pier 23, Murder and Mr. Malone, Pete Kelly’s Blues, One Out of Seven) grew up.



The Pasadena Freeway opened in 1940 and (if one ignores Ramona Boulevard) was the first freeway in the western US. Its construction carved a scar which further cut-off Downtown from its neighbors to the west as it passed through Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, Mount Washington, Montecito Heights, Highland Park, Garvanza, and South Pasadena on its way to Pasadena — suburbs whose selling point was often that they were located a short car ride from Downtown, or more specifically, Civic Center. By the post-war era, most of Downtown was decidedly unfashionable and the main reason respectable Angelenos would be found there was if they worked in city hall or another government building.

Jewish migration to Los Angeles peaked in the mid-1940s.  Jews, historically prevented from officially participating in Los Angeles politics, had helped to transform Hollywood and create shopping districts in the Miracle Mile and the Fairfax district. Increasingly, from Downtown and Eastside Jewish businesses made an exodus for Midtown and the WestsideIn the 1950s, the old picture palaces on Broadway began showing Spanish-language films and the street transformed into a major Mexican-American shopping corridor. Gay bars, cruising spots, and flop houses came to form the backbone of a secret network of spots which formed “the Run.” Massive change, however, was right around the corner.


Bunker Hill Redevelopment Zone
Bunker Hill Redevelopment Zone

President Harry S. Truman signed the Housing Act of 1949 into law with the aim of creating public housing for Americans living in slum conditions. What was a slum was subject to disagreement, however. One man’s slum was another man’s bustling, working class neighborhood which happened to be situated on highly valued land.  “Huge Bunker Hill Housing Plan Not to Deprive Any of Shelter,” read the headline of a 1949 story in the Los Angeles Herald. despite the fact that The Housing Act mandated that redevelopment had to be predominately residential, in many American cities “slum clearance” was the name given to what were essentially big developers’ land-grabs.

The year before Truman signed into law the Housing Act, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) was formed, the agency which would oversee the long, slow redevelopment of Bunker Hill.  The CRA instituted the Bunker Hill Redevelopment project in 1955 but it wasn’t until 1959 that Los Angeles adopted it. The city’s 13-story/150-foot (46 meter) height ceiling was repealed in 1956. Over the course of the following decade, Bunker Hill would knock down both its pre-existing structures (including 7,310 residences and home to about 22,000 Angelenos) and to an extent, the hill itself (about ten meters were scrapped off the top).

In the “slum” of Dogtown, displaced residents got new homes built on the former site of an Almagamated Oil refinery and a Wiltco Corporation hazardous waste dump (cleaned up a short 52 years after the fact). In Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill, housing never came (Chavez Ravine became Dodger Stadium and its ridiculously large parking lot).  A group of capitalists calling themselves the Committee of 25 successfully unseated mayor Fletcher Bowron by running the fear-mongering C. Norris Poulson, a Republican whose mayoral platform was centered on the cessation of all public housing which, being socialist, was un-American.

The Castle
On 6 March 1969, the last two Victorian-era houses moving to Heritage Square

The last two Victorian homes, known as the Salt Box and the Castle, were designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments No. 5 and No. 27 in 1962 and ’64, respectively. In 1969 they were moved to Heritage Square Museum in Montecito Heights, where an arsonist promptly reduced both to ash.  With a bit of movie magic the Bunker Hill of old appeared in LA Confidential (1997) and Ask the Dust (2006) but few actual vestiges remain.


It was a similar story in many American cities. The thriving, residential neighborhoods of downtowns were demolished and replaced with shiny skyscrapers and sports venues in an effort to lure back the middle and upper classes who’d decamped for the suburbs. The result, for decades, was downtowns where few actually lived. After finishing work or closing shop, most returned to the suburbs.

Not only did depopulating Bunker Hill suck the life from that neighborhood but all of downtown. The old businesses, offices, and financial institutions along Broadway, Main, and Spring Street (the “Wall Street of the West”) emptied. The upper floors of old downtown’s skyscrapers were mostly either vacant or housed sweatshops. The ground floors continued to house businesses, albeit ones which generally generated less tax revenue for the city than their preceding tenants. Even the opening of the Los Angeles Mall and Triforium proved insufficient in keeping salarymen and shopkeepers downtown after sundown.

View looking north on Flower Street from 4th Street, through the former Bunker Hill neighborhood. The newly constructed Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, right, and the Department of Water and Power headquarters can be seen past 1st Street. (1964)

Atop the actual Bunker Hill (but generally thought of as lying within the Civic Center) are two of the first buildings to follow the neighborhood’s redevelopment, the beautiful John Ferraro Building (formerly known as the Department of Water and Power’s General Office Building), completed in 1964, and the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1964), Ahmanson Theater (1967), and Mark Taper Forum (1967). In the southern end of the redevelopment zone, in what’s typically thought of as the Financial District, the 40-story, 157 meter tall Union Bank Plaza became the first skyscraper to be built as part of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project.

Bunker Hill Towers
Modern towers rise from a flattened Bunker Hill in 1971. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library)
Bunker Hill Tower (1)
Bunker Hill Tower
Bunker Hill Tower
Bunker Hill West (foreground) and Bank of America Center (background)

The first new building in the Bunker Hill neighborhood was a humblr utility building constructed in 1966 which currently utilized by Veolia Energy. However, putting that aside, the first major project was the residential, 32-story Bunker Hill Tower. Construction of the Robert Evans Alexander-designed towers began in 1966. Bunker Hill Tower, Bunker Hill West, and Bunker Hill South opened opened in 1968.

The Castle, 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue, Los Angeles, California, c. 1968 (Julius Shulman)


Transportation Technology Incorporated People Mover (1971) 2
Transportation Technology Incorporated People Mover (1971)

The Calvin S. Hamilton Pedway is a series of elevated walkways that were meant to be the first phase of what would become a mechanized people mover squiring people around Bunker Hill and the Financial District. It was first presented in the 1970 Concept Los Angeles: The Concept for the Los Angeles General Plan. Hamilton was the city planning director at the time, having taken the position in 1964. The plan, adopted by the city in 1974, promoted dense commercial developments connected to one another by a rapid transit system. The plan was abandoned in 1981 when federal funding for the project was eliminated.

L.A. Hotel Downtown pedway looking back toward the World Tr-thumb-600x448-54090
L.A. Hotel Downtown pedway looking back toward the World Trade Center


The 55-story, Corporate International-style, Albert C. Martin and Associates-designed commercial high-rise was completed in 1975, when it opened as the Security Pacific Plaza. On the plaza in front of the building stands “Four Arches,” a large orange piece of plop art designed by artist Alexander Calder and commissioned by the CRA, who required that each commercial development spent 1% of its costs on plop art. As a result, Bunker Hill is something like a gallery — like many downtowns — of big, costly, abstract sculptures. Bank of America Center also includes “Sierra Leone” (1983), “Verdugo” (1986), and “Covina — three pieces by Woods Davy (1986).

farmers market
Bunker Hill Farmers’ Market

More appealing to me than any of the public art at the plaza is the large fountain. On Fridays, from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm, the plaza hosts the Bank of America Farmers Market.

Blocked off escalator

There are plenty of marginal spaces on Bunker Hill, such as this dusty escalator, the entrances of which are blocked with plywood. The escalator leads to a large, hardscaped area under 4th Street.

Under 4th
Under 4th Street

One of the most interesting pieces of the pedestrian infrastructure was this old staircase, perhaps a relic of old Bunker Hill, which has been partially buried, landscaped, and leads to a wall.

A partially buried staircase


Figueroa Courtyard
Figueroa Courtyard

Figueroa Courtyard is an office complex built in 1978 for the Pacific Stock Exchange, and originally named Exchange Square. As a fan of banal business parks I’m intrigued by this space — especially as it seems rather incongruent with its urban setting. Apparently, in the 1970s, when much of Bunker Hill had yet to be re-developed and probably resembled the lifeless surface of the moon, this gray complex was comparatively lush-enough to be nicknamed “The Garden.”

Inside Figueroa Courtyard
Inside “the Garden”

When it did open it was given a more prosaic name, yet another name had been chosen — the Gilbert W. Lindsay Mall. Today it feels less like an outpost of green on an otherwise lifeless landscape than a lifeless office park better suited for the borderlands of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.


Angelus Plaza
Angelus Plaza

Angelus Plaza is an affordable housing community for older adults, completed in 1980. Like Cathay Manor, Fairmount Terrace, or Little Tokyo Towers, I’ve long had this strange fantasy about spending my golden years there. 

Water Court (1)
The Water Court
Angelus Plaza and Water Court.jpg
Angelus Plaza and the Water Court

The buildings — 17-story Dawn, 16-story Evensong, 16-story Jubilate, and 16-story Noontide — remind me in appearnace of a Chinese ghost city like Ordos — but there are people living in these. In fact, Angelus Plaza is the largest affordable housing community of its kind in the nation. Though to me the look older than they are, apparently some find them futuristic. After all, they were prominently featured Steven Spielberg’s deeply silly Minority Report (2002), a film I disliked so much that I was compelled to watch it twice.


Promenade Plaza
Promenade Plaza

Promenade Plaza is a plaza, strip mall, and residential building built in 1981. It hosts an untitled sculpture in a by Sheldon Caris (1981) and to its west is the residential Promenade West, also completed in 1981. I’m not aware of who designed them but they’re vaguely Sea Ranch in design.


The atrium of Wells Fargo Plaza

Wells Fargo Center is comprised of two high-rises and a three story atrium designed by Skidmore, Owings & MerrillThe atrium interior of Wells Fargo Plaza was designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. It houses bronze nudes by Robert Graham as well as pools and fountains. It also houses Joan Miró’s ”la caresse d’un oiseau” (1967) and Jean Dubuffet‘s Le Dandy, (1973-1983) — easily my favorite two public art pieces on Bunker Hill.

Dandy and Arches
Le Dandy and (outside) Four Arches

The 54-story Wells Fargo Tower  was completed in 1983. It’s home to the kid-oriented Wells Fargo History Museum and City Club Los Angeles. Neighboring KPMG Tower — a 45-story high-rise, was also completed in 1983.

Night Sail

Outside the towers are two more pieces of public art. Louise Nevelson‘s aluminum and steel “Night Sail was completed in 1985. Nancy Graves‘s “Sequi,” a bronze painted with polychrome sculpture was completed in 1986.


The 13-story LA Hotel Downtown was completed in 1983 as the Sheraton Grande and has since gone through several incarnations. It used to house Laemmle‘s Grande 4-Plex, a much-missed movie house. 


Water Court
Water Court

California Plaza is a large plaza which contains One California Plaza, Two California Plaza, and the Water Court at California Plaza — the site of Grand Performances. 42-story One California Plaza was designed by Arthur Erickson Architectural Corporation and completed in 1985. The 52-story Two California Plaza was completed in 1992. California Plaza is also home to a Mark di Suvero sculpture titled “Pre-Natal Memories – Sculpture” (1976-1980).

Angels Knoll
Angels Knoll
“Save the Knoll”

Three California Plaza was never completed. It’s intended location, a one hectare hillside lot, became Angels Knollpark. In 2008, Jacci Den Hartog designed a new landscape and Angel’s Knoll got new benches and trees. The following year it was featured prominently in the film, (500) Days of Summer. The CRA was disbanded in 2012 and that same year artist Calder Greenwood installed a family of papier-mâché deer, one of the few un-sacntioned pieces of public art to have appeared in Bunker Hill. A fence was erected around the parcel in 2013.

View from Angels Knoll
View of Old Downtown from Angels Knoll


Promenade Towers
Promenade Towers

The nineteen-story North Tower and the seventeen-story South Tower of Promenade Towers were completed in 1986. At the time they comprised the largest residential colony in Los Angeles. Today they’re only the second largest residential colony — but still perhaps the ugliest.


Uptown Rocker

Lloyd Hamrol’s homage to car culture, “Uptown Rocker” (1986), was commissioned by the defunct CRA and cost $113,000.


MOCA, The Coburn, etc
MOCA, the Coburn, and California Plaza

The Arata Isozaki-designed, Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) opened in 1986. MOCA has three locations with the main branch being the location on Grand. The original space, now known as the Geffen Contemporary, is in Little Tokyo. There’s also the Pacific Design Center facility in West Hollywood. Most of the art exhibited is post-World War II American and European art. 

After the opening of MOCA, a few luxury apartments and an hotel appeared. The 27-story Grand Promenade Apartments opened in 1988. They’ve since been rebranded “255 Grand.” The twenty-story Museum Tower Apartments opened in 1990. The second of Bunker Hill’s two hotels, the seventeen-story Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza, opened in 1991.


L.A. Angel

Perhaps the last piece of commissioned public art on Bunker Hill was “L.A. Angel,” a neon sculpture created by Lili Lakich in 1992. Lakich moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and in 1973 began exhibiting her neon sculptures. She founded the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles in 1982 and remained its director until 1999.


Outside the Colburn School at night (Songfest – Los Angeles)

The Colburn School was originally part of the USC Thornton School of Music. In 1980, by which time it was known as the Community School of Performing Arts, it split from USC. After receiving an endowment from billionaire Richard D. Colburn it was renamed. It relocated to its present location on Bunker Hill in 1998. In 2007, the thirteen-story  Pfeiffer Partners-designed The Colburn, joined it.


The top-down efforts to develop New Downtown lost momentum in the 1990s. Three California Plaza remains unbuilt and in 1999, the 26% vacancy rate of the skyscraper was amongst the highest in the nation. Across the freeway, Westlake (which developers were branding “Central City West” or “City West“), the shiny Rolls Royce Tower, balanced on top of a ridiculous fifteen floors of parking, peaked at 10% occupancy. The huge Metropolis project was put on indefinite hold.

In 1999, the Los Angeles City Council passed the adaptive reuse ordinance which allowed for the conversion of under-used and sometimes completely abandoned office buildings into residences. One of the most important aspects of the ordinance was that it forwent the requirement for the creation of additional parking. That proved far more transformative than all the money and effort put into building a new downtown or developing City West. 

To be clear, Downtown Los Angeles was never abandoned. Even before adaptive reuse there were government officials in the Civic Center, salarymen in the Financial District, Mexican merchants along Broadway, Middle Easterners in the Jewelry District, Persian Jews in the Fashion District, and thousands of residents in Bunker Hill’s residential towers. Most of them were only there in the daytime, though. At night Downtown was the land of people working in the wholesale Flower, Produce, and Seafood Districts. Most of them left during the day. Only the homeless, punks, and artists seemed to actually live Downtown.

After adaptive reuse, a generation of young people moved Downtown. In some cases they were fourth-generation suburbanites whose parents are probably still frightened by the thought of American downtowns. Having grown up in safe but dull, culture-deprived tracts of detached homes, these young people seem to be more interested in access to good public transportation than good schools (maybe that will change when more of their kids reach school age).


Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall

The Walt Disney was first designed by Frank Gehry in 1987. I have to say, having been introduced to Gehry’s work by his Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories in Iowa City, I was not a fan. When Walt Disney Concert Hall was finally completed, in 2003, it looked to me like his other designs, as blithely indifferent to its environment as any piece of plop art. Its reflective sheen created 60 °C hotspots on the surrounding sidewalks and melted objects in neighboring buildings. A tarp was draped upon it as a temporary solution and later, most of it was buffed to dull its surface. In 2006, a documentary titled Sketches of Frank Gehry seemed to have been produced primarily so that the talking heads of Bob GeldofDennis Hopper, and other celebs respected architectural theorists could win over the doubters just waiting for celebrity endorsements. 

An almost hidden staircase on the Walt Disney Concert Hall


Walt Disney Garden
Garden atop Walt Disney Concert Hall

I still regard Walt Disney Concert Hall somewhat ambivalently… but exploring its exterior I succumbed to its charms including amphitheaters tucked away on the roof, hidden walkways which almost make one feel as if one is trespassing, a beautiful garden, and all sorts of interesting nooks, angels, and views.

Inside Walt Disney
Inside Walt Disney 2

I also like the hall because it’s home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale, and especially REDCAT, all of which produce a great deal of interesting programming. Finally, no cultural institution along Grand Avenue can claim as much credit for bringing people back to Bunker Hill and spurring another wave of development.

An almost-hidden amphitheater atop Walt Disney Concert Hall


Arquitectonica’s new Grand Avenue Tower [The Emerson] just broke ground (Related Companies)

The nineteen-story Emerson LA, a luxury apartment building designed by Miami-based Arquitectonica, opened in 2014. 


The Broad
The Broad

The Broad opened in 2015. The new, contemporary art museum boasts about 2,000 pieces by the likes of Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Ed Ruscha, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein — or as a friend put it — pretty much the art collection you’d expect a billionaire to amass. The billionaires in this case being Eli and Edythe Broad.

I haven’t been inside yet but the honeycombed exterior, designed by the New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, seems to have bested Gehry’s neighboring Walt Disney Concert Hall, measured by the all important metric of the Instagram hashtag.


Rendering of the Grand Avenue redevelopment project

Although nothing is set in stone until it’s set in stone (or sidewalk cooking reflective metal) the Frank Gehry-designed 37-story currently being erected atop an old parking lot is scheduled for completion in 2017. At that time the top floors will be residential, the bottom floors will host the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and the ground floor will contain a Whole Foods… maybe.



According to City Data, 3,950 people live in the .45 square kilometer Bunker Hill neighborhood today. 49% of residents are California natives, 9% are immigrants from another state, and 42% were born in a foreign country. 53% of Bunker Hill residents are Asian, 27% are white, 11% are Latino, 7% are black, 2% are multi-racial, and less than one percent identify as being of another race (including seven Native Americans).


Detail of LA Travel and Hotel Bureau transit map (1906)
Detail of LA Travel and Hotel Bureau transit map (1906). Yellow (Los Angeles Railway), Red (Pacific Electric Railway) and Green (Los Angeles Inter-Urban Railway)

Even without Angels Flight, Bunker Hill is well-served by public transit. Lines operated by Big Blue Bus, Commuter Express, DASH, Foothill Transit, Metro, OCTA, and Torrance Transit stop at various points within the neighborhood.

Bus Stop
Bus stop with real-time arrival display (gasp!)
Civic Center:Grand Park Station
The Bunker Hill entrance to Civic Center / Grand Park station.

The Civic Center Station’s Bunker Hill entrance is served by Los Angeles’s two subway lines, the Purple and Red. The 3 kilometer long Downtown Regional Connector, currently under construction, will add a stop at 2nd/Hope. When complete (sometime around 2020) the lines will be reconfigured. At that time one light rail line will connect Santa Monica (currently the Expo Line) to East Los Angeles (currently the Gold Line) and ultimately beyond (perhaps Whittier). The other line will connect Long Beach (currently the Blue Line) with Azusa (currently the Gold Line) and ultimately beyond (perhaps Ontario). 

Grand Avenue
DASH bus on Grand Avenue


Now normally when I explore a neighborhood I make a point of eating and grabbing some drinks  there. This time, however, I (and those who joined me) headed to the newly re-opened Clifton’s Cafeteria. There are a few places to eat in Bunker Hill and they include: Asiago Grilled Cheese, Au Lac DTLA, Blue Cow Kitchen, Colburn Cafe, Concert Hall Café, Courtyard Cafe, Crisp Pasta, Dan’s Deli, George’s Greek Grill, Grand Café, The Happy InkaLemonade, Let’s Roll Sushi, Market Café at Wells Fargo Center, Mendocino Farms, MIX Fresh & Natural, Mixt Greens, Ocho Mexican Grill, Nick + Stef’s Steakhouse, Noe Restaurant and Bar, Otium, La Petite Boulangerie, Patina Restaurant, Patinette, Pentolino To Go, Prime Grind Coffee, Promenade Ristorante, Saffron, Salata, Smoke on Hope Street, Tacone, Trimana, Vespaio, Ye Olde Taco House 1, and Ziran.

The only bars, so to speak, that I know of are The Lounge at REDCAT and the Redwood Bar & Grill. I’ve been to the latter a few times. They sometimes have live music and it has a pirate theme but don’t let that scare you. If someone gets “ren fairey” and starts talking like a pirate, no one will mind if you “blow the man down.”



Since 2000, Downtown is commonly described as having experienced a renaissance but, aside from the Music Center and LA Live, the energy seems to be focused almost entirely in Old Downtown — the Historic Core, the Old Bank District, the Broadway Theater DistrictGallery Row, and the Arts District. New Downtown — Bunker Hill and the Financial District, are less hip. Today’s young, urban, professionals may have adopted early ’90s fashions and hairstyles but not the corporate aesthetic. Today 25% of the office spaces on Bunker Hill sit empty (as do 18% of those in the Financial District). Cubicles and carpet are out, “creative spaces” characterized by mis-matched furniture and polished concrete floors are in. Rumors are floated of conversions of office space into hotels. Can lofts be far behind? Perhaps the office spaces of New Downtown could benefit from the installation of a few decorative ducts and exposed brick walls. After dark there are pockets of activity away from Grand Avennue but large areas of New Downtown eerily resemble the empty Downtown Los Angeles of Omega Man.


Bunker Hill Los Angeles, Reminiscences of Bygone Days (1964) by Leo Polti

The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (1997) by Norman M. Klein

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990) and “Bunker Hill: Hollywood’s Dark Shadow” (2001) by Mike Davis

Bunker Hill: Pulp Ficition’s Mean Streets and Film Noir’s Ground Zero (2012) by Jim Dawson

A Los Angeles Primer: Bunker Hill by Colin Marshall

Third Street Tunnel: A Primer by Eric Richardson

CityDig: This 1869 Map Is an Antique Blueprint of Bunker Hill by Glen Creason

Laws That Shaped L.A.: How Bunker Hill Lost its Victorians by Jeremy Rosenberg

Rediscovering Downtown L.A.’s Lost Neighborhood of Bunker Hill by Nathan Masters

Sidewalk Stories: The Photography of William Reagh by Lynell George

Stan, Ollie, and Harold – a Drive Through Bunker Hill

On Bunker Hill

At the Los Angeles Central Library there’s an exhibit, curated by Christina Rice and Emma Roberts, titled Bunker Hill in the Rear-View Mirror: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of an Urban Neighborhood.

Support Eric Brightwell on Patreon

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingo, FacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubi, and Twitter.

28 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Bunker Hill

  1. Nice and valuable documentary Eric. Congratulations and thank you on behalf of all those who enjoy it!!! I use to visit my father who lived in the Bunker Hill Towers for a few years around 2000. We all loved that area. It´s really beatiful and peaceful beside of beeing in LA downtown. It´s good to know more about the history. Best wishes, Evandro Almeida

    Liked by 1 person

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